September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

Natalie Cole (Verve)

Natalie Cole, jazz singer. It could happen. On 1991’s “Unforgettable” she combined sampling and sentimentality to perform a Grammy-winning duet with her father, the late Nat “King” Cole. On this ambitious new disc the onetime pop princess favors sultry tunes associated with jazz legends. Cole gamely fronts a 14-karat band with a string section as she sings songs recorded by such hard-to-top stylists as Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McCrae. Once again a duet proves to be a standout: “Better Than Anything,” with vocal phenom Diana Krall, is a light, upbeat romp.

Throughout, Cole scats and riffs, but she seldom astounds: She is a hard-paddling duckling among swans. Jazz-hounds may snarl that the dense but rapturous arrangements (one highlight is Roy Hargrove’s buttery flugelhorn solo on “I’m Glad There Is You”) don’t leave Cole enough room for interpretation and that even the mellow selections seem ready to morph into Broadway glitz. Cole’s fans, however, will approve of this bold change in direction and celebrate a bright voice that makes old notes new.

Bottom Line: Classy Cole cuts

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