“I blame my parents,” says 39-year-old pianist Kevin Cole about his fixation on George Gershwin. “I was seven years old, growing up in Bay City, Michigan, and they gave me permission to stay up late and watch TV.” Though Rhapsody in Blue–the composer’s film biography–played fast and loose with the facts, the music hooked him: “I’d already been playing piano for three years, and I loved the mix of classical and jazz.”

That fascinating rhythm prompted Cole to visit the local library, where he found a biography of Gershwin by Edward Jablonski, another Bay City native. Ten years later, after graduating from Interlochen Academy for the Arts, Cole headed to New York and looked up the biographer. “He invited me over to play for him and his wife,” Cole recalls. “When I finished, he asked me if I’d ever heard Gershwin play. I said no, and he said, ‘Well, you sound just like him.'” Others agreed that Cole’s style recalled the Broadway tunesmith and classical composer. After listening to Cole, Gershwin’s sister Frances Godowsky asked, “Where did he learn to play like George?” And according to Jablonski, Irving Berlin told Cole: “Kid, if I could have played piano like that, I would never have become a songwriter.”

Cole’s brilliant technique, rhythmic sharpness, lush lyricism, and playful humor are dazzling in Gershwin Solo, running at the Ivanhoe Theater through September 26. In sparkling renditions of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and other pieces, he uses the powerful, unadorned sound of a single piano to illuminate the harmonic complexity, rhythmic variety, and melodic strength that made Gershwin a defining figure in 20th-century music. Cole’s arrangements crackle with playful countermelodies and joyful, jittery ornamentations, yet he also captures Gershwin’s ruminative, melancholy side in the haunting “Blue Lullaby” and in an interpretation of “Love Is Here to Stay,” with accompaniment borrowed from the second movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F.

Cole, who came to Chicago five years ago as musical director of the doo-wop revue Forever Plaid, has soloed for the last three seasons with the Boston Philharmonic in “Rhapsody in Blue” and Gershwin’s other major works for piano and orchestra. At the Ivanhoe, he plays the “Rhapsody” in what he calls its “urtext”–a recently published solo-piano arrangement that closely follows Gershwin’s manuscript, incorporating such significant differences from the standard orchestral version as restored passages and alternative chord voicings. This intimate, understated evening, offered in honor of Gershwin’s centennial, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the show celebrity crooner Michael Feinstein and a 50-piece orchestra will present at the Chicago Theatre on September 26, Gershwin’s actual birthday.

Though Cole sings a few numbers in a pleasant baritone reminiscent of 30s movie musicals, he doesn’t set himself up as a cabaret entertainer. What he wants is national attention as a concert soloist, and he hopes Gershwin Solo will be “the ticket to a New York concert debut. You know, when Gershwin was finishing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ on deadline for its 1924 premiere, he was in such a hurry that he didn’t even write out the piano solos; the conductor’s score contains blank pages that say only ‘Wait for nod.’ Well, I’m waiting for my nod.”

Gershwin Solo plays at the Ivanhoe Theater, 750 W. Wellington, on Friday, September 18 and 25, at 8 PM; Saturday, September 19, at 8:30 PM; and Saturday, September 26, at 5 and 8 PM. Tickets are $25; call 773-975-7171.

–Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kevin Cole photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.