GOLDSBORO — Nicholas Cole is trying to remember a song. Seated at the keyboard in his bedroom, he purses his lips in concentration, working the keys and tapping his left foot on a tune that's part pop, part jazz. Then he starts humming the words in a low murmur.
Every time I see her face
On the street in the hollow 'round the bend
I see her mind and then I go down -
" 'The Road Not Taken,' " he announces, breaking his reverie. "That's the one. I love Bruce Hornsby. I'm a big fan, been listening to him for quite some time. My favorite album of his is 'Scenes From the South Side,' and my favorite songs on it are 'Road Not Taken' and 'Look Out Any Window.' His stuff with The Range is just classic to me. Most people I ask have never even heard of Bruce Hornsby, especially my age."
True enough. Cole turned 18 in August, and a largely forgotten 1988 album by the middle-age pop group Bruce Hornsby & the Range is not something you'd expect an African-American teenager to know (let alone love). Then again, not many 18-year-olds have cracked the upper reaches of Billboard's jazz chart, either.
Cole achieved that feat recently with "5th Avenue," the first single from his instrumental album "A Journey of One." Cole released the album independently last year and then hired a promoter to start pushing "5th Avenue" to radio stations this year. That was enough to get it onto Billboard's "Jazz Songs" chart, which is based on airplay. The song climbed to No. 11 in late November, appearing alongside big names such as George Benson, Daryl Hall and Jill Scott.
"It's a real achievement for an unknown on an independent label to get on the chart at all," says Silvio Pietroluongo, director of charts at Billboard. "To get up that high is even more of one. That's impressive."
Cole has always been precocious, going back to when his grandfather gave him his first keyboard when he was 4. At age 8, Cole graduated to a bigger keyboard, a Casio he still owns. The instrument came programmed with 100 songs, and Cole's favorite was the Christmas standard "Joy to the World." It was the dead of summer, but that was still the first song he learned by heart. His first experience playing in front of people was at Goldsboro's Mount Zion Church Ministries, where his uncle was pastor.
"I got started playing a Hammond B3 organ there, with a drummer and bass player," Cole recalls. "Church is a great experience for anyone learning to play because there are a whole bunch of styles within gospel."
Fusing jazz and pop
By age 13, Cole was writing and recording his own tunes, gravitating toward an instrumental fusion of smooth jazz and grown-up (some might even say old-fogey) pop.
"David Foster is one of my favorite producers," Cole says of the Canadian producer behind Josh Groban, Celine Dion and other light favorites. "His music is so melodic and beautiful, it caught me at an early age."
Nowadays, Cole plays a keyboard as grown-up as his music, a full-sized instrument that is his first with the standard 88 keys. He used it for all the music on "A Journey of One," augmenting his keyboard-tinkling with synthesized drums, bass, guitars and horns. And he didn't even have to move it.
"I recorded that whole album in this very bedroom, on this keyboard," Cole says, giving the instrument a fond pat. "I never thought of it as something that could be a Billboard hit, but I guess the music speaks for itself. I've been working with a band on live shows, and on the next record, you'll hear me collaborating with a lot more musicians. But this first time, I wanted to do it as 'A Journey of One.' Make my mark by myself. The next one will be a journey of many."
Even though Cole's music has no words, his album's 12 tracks show the influence of lyric-oriented artists including Foster and Hornsby. The arrangements echo Foster's attention to detail, and Cole's jazz-accented piano flourishes are very reminiscent of Hornsby. Stevie Wonder-style funk is another reference point, especially on the opening tune "Crank It Up."
"Art for me, I just want to make it what comes from the heart," Cole says. "I don't have to be at the keyboard to compose, I might be in the car. I was in the car on my way to Raleigh when I got the idea for 'Crank It Up.' I got to Raleigh and was looking at the scenery downtown, thinking about big-city life. And it was a groove like 'Crank It Up.' "
'An epic moment'
Cole composed the album's hit track "5th Avenue" at his keyboard, but the inspiration came from an urban setting. Cole based that one on childhood memories of a trip to New York with his father to mark his 12th birthday.
"It was an epic moment," Cole says. "He took me out on Fifth Avenue and I remember that street, the vibe it gave. Years later, I was reliving that feeling, thinking back and trying to come up with a melody that captured it. I probably went through 10 different melodies until I came up with the one that made it."
He pauses to play the song's jaunty, brightly cascading riff, sounding more like Hornsby than ever.
"And it was, 'Oh, that's it - there it is,' " he says. "Everything before was not reminding me of Fifth Avenue. Then I got to that, finally found it, and I knew I had something special. It just kind of fell into place."
Living at home for now
For all the sophisticated big-city vibes on "A Journey of One," Cole is still living in his hometown. He graduated from high school in June, and he's living in the bedroom he grew up in while trying to break into music. If he really wants to make a go of it in the music industry, he'll probably have to move a big city.
"A lot of people I network with are trying to get me to move to L.A.," he said. "It's something to think about for the future - which might be close, with what's been happening. I've never been. I'm going out there in January for the (National Association of Music Merchants) convention."
For now, at least, it's probably enough that Cole is making fans, some of them in high places. One is Maxx Myrick, who programs urban adult-contemporary station WHUR in Washington, D.C., (and who also created the smooth jazz channel for XM satellite radio).
"Nicholas' album is one of the best contemporary jazz recordings I've heard in quite a while," Myrick says. "It's a true move back to the original groove-oriented form from which the smooth jazz genre sprang. We will be playing it."
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat