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Nat King Cole & Friends

Hearing Voices – Installment # 22: June 28, 2010

Nat King Cole

For serious jazz fans willing to drop serious coin on deluxe, limited edition box sets, Mosaic Records has remained the undisputed leader for over 20 years. But a feisty new competitor appeared on the horizon not long ago, and they’re coming on strong. Within the larger, more wide-ranging Hip-O Select, which covers soul, country and rock, and drills deep into both the Motown and Chess catalogs, there is Verve Select, devoted exclusively to rare and intriguing jazz releases. It was Verve Select that last year unearthed those languishing-in-the-vault Ella Fitzgerald recordings at the Crescendo in 1961 and ’62 and sumptuously packaged them as the four-disc Twelve Nights In Hollywood. Verve Select has also crafted the first Abbey Lincoln career retrospective, the triple-disc Through the Years, has assembled all 50 of the Milt Gabler-produced Billie Holiday tracks for Commodore and Decca, packaged all of Oscar Peterson’s career-igniting sessions for Clef and Mercury and combined two classic Jimmy Smith albums, Respect and Livin’ It Up on a single disc.

Most recently, the folks at Verve Select jumped into the way-back machine to excavate three discs’ worth of rare Nat King Cole material from outside his star-making work for Capitol. As luxuriously packaged as the Ella set, Riffin’: The Decca, JATP, Keynote and Mercury Recordings is a multifarious treat, especially for those who only know Cole for his lush vocal recordings. The earliest of the 53 tracks date from 1936, with a 17-year-old Nat in a Chicago studio with elder brother Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers. The Cole piano style that would influence everyone from Peterson to Bud Powell is nowhere evident, but young Nat does a decent job of emulating Earl Hines on “Honey Hush,” “Thunder,” “Stompin at the Panama” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.”

Fast forward four years, with an immensely more assured Cole and his trio mates – guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Price – riding high with their breakout hit, “Sweet Lorraine,” which not only established Cole as an emerging piano genius but gave the record-buying public its first taste of Cole the vocalist. 17 tracks, beginning with the trio’s debut session from December 1940 and extending into late ’41, include the patriotic swinger “Gone With the Draft” (co-written by Cole and Price), a quintet of other Cole originals – the bright-as-a-new-penny “This Side Up,” the gently propulsive “Hit the Ramp,” the bluesy “That Ain’t Right,” the percolated “Early Morning Blues” and the bouncy “Call the Police” – plus fine treatments of “Honeysuckle Rose,” “This Will Make You Laugh” (introducing Cole the vocal balladeer), “Stop! The Red Light’s On” and two other early hits, “Scotchin’ With Some Soda” and “Hit That Jive, Jack.” Rounding out the first disc are four tracks from a 1946 Keynote session. The all-star quartet, billed as the Keynoters, features Willie Smith on alto sax, Red Callender on bass and Jackie Mills on drums. The record-buying public would, officially at least, have no idea that Cole was at the piano. To avoid contractual conflicts with Capitol, Cole billed himself as “Lord Calvert.” He’s in exceptional form, bolstered by exemplary cohorts, on three standards, “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and “My Old Flame,” and an startlingly original slice of bebop, credited to the entire foursome, called “Airiness A La Nat.” (Alternate takes of three of the Keynoters’ tracks are added at the end of the set’s third disc).

The second disc is comprised entirely of the wild Jazz at the Philharmonic concert presented and recorded by Norman Granz on July 2, 1944. The Cole Trio was meant to be the cornerstone of the assembled talent (this time with Cole billing himself as “Shorty Nadine”), but Oscar Moore never showed and was replaced by Les Paul. Also on the bandstand: Callender and Johnny Miller alternating, and occasionally overlapping, on bass, drummer Lee Young, J.J. Johnson on trombone for four tracks, and Illinois Jacquet and Jack McVea sharing sax duties. Vocalist Carolyn Richards also stops by for a tender “The Man I Love.” Commenting on the general raucousness of the evening, Cole biographer Daniel Mark Epstein notes that, “far from bestowing on the musicians the compliment of serious attention, the cheering, shouting mob of 1,200 jazz fans sounds hell-bent on turning the concert into a three-ring circus. The musicians are happy to oblige in their grandstanding, double- and triple-chorus solos. Invited to stretch their wings, Illinois Jacquet ad Jack McVea seem desperate to exhibit bebop virtuosity. The more the fans squeal at Jacquet’s screeching high notes and honking low notes, the more he screeches and honks, until the theme becomes a shambles. Even [Cole] loses his usual restraint in “Tea for Two,” reviving a Hinesian “trumpet” style in his obbligato behind McVea; and when the times comes for his own solo, Nat plays Hines-style rapid runs up and down the length of his keyboard. Applause for him grows nearly hysterical as Nat’s playing grows more disjointed and begins to bop free of the original melody and rhythm.” Fans of Granz’s JATP sessions are likely already well familiar with these 11 tracks. All were included in the ambitious, 10-disc set The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve, released in 1998.

Disc three opens with four tracks, recording around the same time as the JATP concert, from Dexter Gordon’s very first session as leader, for Mercury, also featuring Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet. Gordon and Edison swing through a blistering “I’ve Found a New Baby.” Cole steps up for a vocal-less “Sweet Lorraine” and Earl Hines’ “Rosetta” and the entire group brings it home with Edison’s easygoing “I Blowed and Gone.”

But the heart and soul of this set, the nine tracks that are alone worth the price of admission, find Cole (adopting the moniker “Aye Guy”), circa 1946, united with Lester Young and Buddy Rich. This is postwar Young, damaged and disillusioned, and the haunting beauty, tinged with melancholy, of his playing is beyond compare. In the superb essay that illuminates the box set, David Ritz quotes pianist and composer Bobby Scott, who often worked with Young in the 1950s. Young, who had a penchant for assigning playful nicknames to his pals, referred to Scott as “Socks” and, deeply impressed by the elegance of his playing, dubbed Nat “Lady Cole.” Says Scott of the ’46 recordings, “When I started playing with Pres, the first thing he said was, ‘Get those records I made with Lady Cole and study them like the Bible. Ain’t no one better at comping. His solos are prettier than a motherf-ker, so pretty that after Lady Cole gets through playing, I don’t even want to pick up my horn. Just wanna keep listening to that piano… The thing about Lady Cole is that he understands simple. Simple’s always better. Other cats be playing way too many changes behind me. They get fancy when all fancy does is get in the way. Lady Cole lays the s–t out in a way that lets you relax. He lays down a path for you to follow, gives you a little push now and then, but mainly he keeps you steady. He’s the only teacher you need’.”
Riffin: The Decca, JATP, Keynote and Mercury Recordings, produced in a limited edition of 7000, is available through the Hip-O website,

If you’d like to share your comments about Nat King Cole or Verve Select or want to send along ideas for future installments of Hearing Voices, please direct your email to [email protected].

Originally Published