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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.”

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