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Life's a spirited improv session for this multitalented musician

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ORLANDO, Fla. - To hear Anthony Cole play drums, keyboards, saxophone or guitar, or to hear him sing - after all, he'll tell you that's what he did first - is to realize you're in the presence of an immensely talented musician.

To hear him talk about the color of minor chords, the greatest horror film ever made or the mystical movements of the mind is a reminder that he's more than technically proficient. The wheels, as he is quick to admit, are always turning.

"There's a lot of information," says Cole, longtime collaborator with jazz icon Sam Rivers and go-to accompanist for the inner circle of Orlando's independent music scene for almost 15 years. "There's a lot in my life that has happened, so there's a lot to retain."

The fact that Cole, 37, is playing and talking in Orlando, leading the rhythm section for Rivers' Wednesday-night big-band rehearsal gigs at Will's Pub, is one of life's fortunate accidents. They just seem to happen to him, but then, successful people make their own luck.

"My car broke down," Cole says of the event that brought him to town permanently, when he was commuting about a decade ago from beachside digs in Daytona Beach. "People were driving me into town from Daytona and after about five months, it got a little old."

It's the consensus among his peers that this displaced beach lover could swim in the deeper creative waters of New York or Los Angeles, where he did studio work before moving to Central Florida with his mother, veteran jazz singer Linda Cole.

"It's easy to look at Anthony and, once you get a grasp of his musical abilities, think that he's bigger than this town, that he could shoot for the moon," says Joseph Martens, 38, leader of Orlando alt-country band Hindu Cowboys, one of the groups for which Cole has played as a hired gun.

"I don't think that it's fair to make any assumptions about what it takes for a man to be happy," Martens adds. "If he's happy being here, working with his friends, helping to nurture a scene he helped create, more power to him."

Leaning back in a comfortably worn recliner in his spartan, one-bedroom place less than the length of a football field from streaking traffic on Interstate 4 in Orlando, Cole laughs about moving.

He wraps his long, slender fingers around a can of Milwaukee's Best, then moves to the doorway to stretch his long, thin frame and have a smoke.

The cars on the highway are speeding out of town, but he's content to take things slower and stay.

"I like having my freedom, and you don't really have that freedom somewhere else," he says. "I've learned so much here. If I was still in L.A., I wouldn't know half what I know now."

Cole started learning early.

When he was 2 years old, he started banging on pots and pans at his grandmother's house in Freeport, Ill. Erma Cole, now 75, was the matriarch of a singing dynasty, and young Anthony's talent was obvious right away.

"Yes, indeed," Erma says. "No doubt about it. We did music all of our lives, and everyone sings. I have over 20 grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren."

Anthony's grandfather, James Cole, was a first cousin of singer Nat "King" Cole, a lineage that would later impress Rivers. More impressive to the elders watching toddler Anthony rattle the pots and pans was the way that he did it.

"He tuned them," mother Linda, 57, says, with fresh amazement at the memory. "He would put dents in them until they made the kind of sound he wanted."

Anthony's mother was devoted to her only son. Although he remains in contact with his father, Eris Cain, his mother shaped his life.

When he was a year old, she took him to his first concert, the James Brown Revue at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

"I stood him up in the chair, and he hasn't stopped moving yet," Linda says. "It's like it got into his bones, and he just got that groove.`'

When her singing career might have exploded into major stardom, Linda passed on the opportunity because of the compromises it would have required for Anthony.

As a teenager, Anthony moved with his mother from Detroit to Orange County, Calif. Within a few years, they would be playing together on the same bandstand in a Top-40 cover band, Children of Light.

Anthony was the drummer but also could play piano enough to compete with his mother.

"He moved into each instrument as he developed, and he walked right into the piano when he was about 19," she says. "Before long, he played better for me than I played for myself."

When mother and son moved to Daytona Beach in 1990, Linda was ready to ease out of the music business as her son was leaping in. Now both are still singing and playing.

Already an accomplished drummer and keyboardist, Anthony discovered saxophone when a friend handed him a tarnished loaner horn from a high-school band.

Cole is still playing that same saxophone - more expensive, shiny models don't feel the same. He considers it just another fortunate accident.

His Rhodes electric piano, the one with the missing lid, is the same one he has played since he was a teenager.

"I like beat-up instruments," he says. "It bothers me when I see guys on stage polishing their horns. Play it, don't wipe it down."

It was Rivers who encouraged Cole to work on the saxophone - and he did.

"Sam saw something in it," Cole says, "but it's still a journey."

Rivers, 81, took Cole under his wing. The avant-garde jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist passed along musical tips and hard-knock wisdom accumulated in a career working with legends such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Cole first caught his eye as a rare breed - a drummer who also played other instruments. The men quickly bonded beyond music.

"Our early lives sort of had parallels," Rivers says. "We understood the experience of a life on the road.

"Now, we've been all around the world together," Rivers says. "Cross-country by car from New Orleans to Texas to Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Seattle, Canada. So we know each other pretty well."

Cole, who is admittedly a free spirit, says he taxed his mentor's patience plenty in the early days: "There was a lot of Where is he?'Does he have his drums?""

There are times when Cole is amazed that the friendship has lasted.

"The amount of respect I get from him, I still don't understand it," Cole says. "But we're careful with each other because we're both very turbulent individuals.

"Sam and I have earned our relationship," he adds. "The music was automatic."

A girlfriend once asked Cole if there was any moment when he wasn't thinking about music.

"It was a good question," he remembers. "I had to say, `Nope. All day long.'"

Cole calls this passion - the girlfriend is no longer around to ask.

"If you're a mechanic, you can't hear a car going down the street and not know what's wrong with it. It's an obsession."

The only competition for Cole's attention is his devotion to B-movie horror flicks. The walls of his room are adorned with garish posters, and the shelves are cluttered with DVDs and videos.

Ask him about "The Exorcist" at your own risk.

"It's in a class by itself," Cole says. "It doesn't show up in my dreams anymore, but it used to always show up in my nightmares. It would be on TV and I wouldn't be able to get to the screen to change the channel, or I'd turn the knob and it'd be on every channel."

Like everything else in his life, his movie collection somehow leads him back to music.

"The thing about horror movies is there's always that chord that makes people walk into that dark room."

Still, he likes the frightening music better than the sweeping strings of a romantic drama. "That big major chord scares me, because we're in it and there's no backing down now."

Only music has earned that kind of commitment, the lifestyle that allows him to rise at 1 in the afternoon, work on a four-track recorder until dawn, then do it again tomorrow.

"Anthony will squeeze every ounce of music or life out of whatever he has to work with," says producer, musician and longtime friend Davey Schweizer.

"I've seen him playing just a kick drum, snare and high-hat, and it will be the most amazing gig," says Schweizer, 38. "He's really found a way to live very minimalist, and it shows on his four-track recordings, which are amazing."

There's a big cardboard box of those tapes in his room, filled with innovative music that no one has ever heard. Cole is working on some other material he wants to release on the homegrown No Ambition label of bassist Ralph Ameduri of the Legendary J.C.'s.

When that might be done is another good question.

"Life is improvisation," Cole says. "You never know."


(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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