Nat King Cole didn’t need a milestone birthday to elicit a flood of tribute albums. A bona fide pop star and racial-barrier-breaking icon at the time of his death from lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 45, he’s been saluted and celebrated on dozens, probably hundreds of discs, including the 1991 megahit Unforgettable…with Love by his daughter Natalie Cole and 1992’s Just the Way I Am by the inimitable Freddy Cole, Nat’s younger brother (the Coles cornered the market on cool). The undimmed spotlight on Nathaniel Adams Coles has blazed all the brighter in the year of his 100th birthday, and two estimable new albums explore different facets of his multifarious musical legacy.
Building on 2016’s Invitation, a hard-swinging program of standards produced by pianist Nat Adderley Jr., San Francisco singer Nicolas Bearde continues his evolution from suave R&B crooner to poised jazz vocalist with his encompassing Cole celebration. Covering a variety of musical moods with easygoing authority, from the wistful “I Remember You” and the swooning “Tenderly” to the snappy “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and the elegiac “I Wish You Love,” Bearde wades into the songs like he’s stepping into a warm bath. For most of the album, his accompanists are a trio led by ace Los Angeles pianist Josh Nelson, who also produced the tracks and wrote the arrangements; two songs feature pianist Peter Horvath, who arranged and produced those pieces. Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, a boon to any musical setting, contributes on three songs, adding a particularly poignant edge to the pathos of “Funny (Not Much).”
If Bearde is the masculine yin component of Cole’s musical persona, Connecticut-based vocalist, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Orice Jenkins is the sensitive, torch-carrying yang. He’s also more interested in vividly reimagining familiar songs, both as a singer and arranger. Accompanying his imploring, almost androgynous vocals on piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, and guitar, Jenkins opens the album with “Let There Be Love”—a cappella except for his finger snaps, a setting that makes the silliness of the lyric unavoidable, and irresistible. The album’s most arresting tracks feature string quartet arrangements that are often effectively counterintuitive, like the ominous minimalist pulse on “Mona Lisa” that imbues the song with a film-noir edge. Similarly, Jenkins renders “Blame It on My Youth” and “Stardust” more as art songs than jazz vehicles, employing idiosyncratic phrasing that might irk some listeners. It’s a perspective on Cole that’s well worth considering.
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