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Nat King Cole: Penthouse Serenade/The Piano Style of Nat King Cole

One of the great swing pianists of the 1940s, Nat “King” Cole was a highly rated jazz performer in 1950 when he struck pay dirt with “Mona Lisa.” That recording, which featured his warm vocal, a string orchestra and none of his piano, became a No. 1 hit and permanently changed Cole’s career. Within a short time he was world famous as a singer of ballads, medium-tempo swing standards and middle-of-the-road pop tunes. Few of his new fans knew that he played piano, and the jazz world was accusing Cole of “selling out” although he never lost his ability to play brilliant piano.

Eighteen of Cole’s Capitol recordings of 1952-64 have now been reissued on nine Collectors’ Choice CDs, each of which contains all of the music from two LPs. Fans of Cole’s later work will certainly want this entire series, although jazz listeners will find some sets much more interesting than others. Penthouse Serenade/The Piano Style of Nat King Cole combines two fairly rare Cole instrumental projects from 1955-56. The emphasis is on Cole’s piano (which essentially replaces his voice) backed by an orchestra and occasional strings. Welcome to the Club/Tell Me About Yourself features Cole as a very effective big-band singer, with the Count Basie Orchestra and pianist Gerald Wiggins featured on the former album. Just One of Those Things/Let’s Face the Music has a pair of swinging collaborations with arranger Billy May from 1957 and 1964. Let’s Face the Music is most unusual in that Cole plays organ on three selections, something he never did before or after. Also of interest is Songs From St. Louis Blues/Looking Back, since Cole played W.C. Handy in the extremely fictional film St. Louis Blues. This is not the soundtrack but it does give Cole a good excuse to sing some of Handy’s most famous pieces. Looking Back is a posthumous hodgepodge collection of rarities from the late 1950s/early ’60s.

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