Picks and Pans Main: Song


Like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole remained true to his muse while unabashedly playing to the crowd. During Cole’s heyday as a pop crooner, from the early ’50s until his death from lung cancer in 1965, his seductive phrasing and silken tone helped him transcend hokey orchestration or swooning strings. Even summoned from audio heaven last year for a dubbed duet with his daughter, Natalie, the old man remained “Unforgettable.”

What’s easily overlooked is that before Cole became a pop star, he had established himself as one of the greatest jazz pianists of his time. This mammoth, 18-CD collection of his early trio recordings showcases Cole’s exceptional talent at keyboard as well as mike. His best trio, with Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on bass, recorded from 1943 to 1947 and set a standard of refinement seldom matched since. Working without a drummer allowed the group a delicious buoyancy, anchored to a relaxed yet firmly swinging beat.

Truly a merry old soul, Cole had impeccable comic timing, invaluable in novelty songs such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which catapulted him into the pop Top 10 in 1944. His keyboard quotations ran from the erudite to the puckish. On a 1946 rendition of “Body and Soul,” for instance, Cole paraphrased Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” before throwing in a tag line from “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”

At the keyboard Cole echoed the melodic, octaves-and-tremolo style made famous by his childhood piano hero, Earl Hines. But his reharmonizing of the chords to Hines’s signature, “Sweet Lorraine,” showed his affinity with such emerging modernists as Bud Powell.

Cole’s ability to fashion sophisticated counterpoint behind his own vocals was remarkable. And when he focused solely on the piano, as he did in a 1947 session that included instrumental versions of “How High the Moon” and “Moonlight in Vermont,” his deft touch made the keyboard sing. (Mosaic. 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902)”

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