Nat Cole's musical contributions and career need little elaboration. It should be noted that Hip-O-Select has put together a three CD set, Nat King Cole & Friends "Riffin': The Decca, JATP and Mercury Recordings.” The performances contained here, with the exception of five from 1936, come from the forties when Cole was emerging as a National star. This set comes in a 5 X 7 book that includes an essay by noted author David Ritz about the music contained on this disc. The book also includes full discographical information and has hard sleeves for each of the three CDs. One CD contains 17 tracks by the classic King Cole Trio along with the 1936 selections from Eddie Cole's Solid Senders, and the 1946 sessions by The Keynoters. The middle CD contains Cole’s performances at the legendary Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, while the final CD includes his sessions with Dexter Gordon and Lester Young and alternate takes of selections with the Keynoters.
Among the 17 selections from 1947 the King Cole Trio are such iconic performances as “Sweet Lorraine,” and “Hit That Jive, Jack,” with Cole’s deft, sophisticated piano, warm vocals, and Oscar Moore’s sparkling guitar runs. Then there are instrumentals like the bouncy “This Side Up,” with Cole and Moore playing off each other. “Honeysuckle Rose,” shows Cole’s ability to spin a horn-like solo on Fats Waller’s stride classic as Moore responds with a similar guitar solo, before Cole’s piano provides a setting for bassist Wesley Smith. “Gone With a Draft,” has a lyric dealing with the wartime military draft, while “Early Morning Blues,” is a low-key, jazzy blues instrumental. and “Scotchin’ With Soda,” is more hip jive, while “That Ain’t Right,” is a vocal blues that perhaps anticipates the similarly uptown piano blues of Cecil Gant (and Charles Brown although Cole’s vocals are much less morose than those of Brown) several years in the future.
The 17 tracks by the Cole Trio are followed by 1936 recordings by Eddie Cole’s Solid Senders, a small group led by Nat’s brother on bass and occasional vocal. As Ritz notes, Nat’s playing is in the manner of Earl Hines on a swinging combo while brother Eddie sings “Honey Hush,” a jive lyric about Sadie Green with punchy horns (trumpet and two saxophones) and a full rhythm section. The other four selections (including an alternate take) are peppy instrumentals including “Thunder” that has nice solos from trumpeter Kenneth Roane as well as Nat and the two saxophonists both of whom display a fair amount of vibrato in the tenor sax solos. Cole’s playing sounds quite modern against the horns. These tracks are followed by the four issued 1946 sides by The Keynoters that featured alto saxophonist Willie Smith along with Cole (as Lord Calvert), bassist Red Callendar and drummer Jackie Mills. Compared to the wobbly playing of the saxophonists with Eddie Cole, Smith is a more modern player and was along with Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges among the finest swing alto saxophonists with a nice tone that hints at the blues. After a wonderful performance of “The Way You Look Tonight,” a torrid instrumental, “Airiness a La Nat,” opens with some wonderful Cole playing before some splendid playing from Smith. This is swing at its finest.
The second disc contains all of Nat King Cole’s performances at the legendary 1944 initial Jazz at the Philharmonic Concerts, that in contrast to the cool trio Cole Trio, was wide open jam sessions. In July, 1944 Cole helps anchor a rhythm section of Les Paul on guitarist, either Johnny Miller or Red Callendar on bass and Lee Young on drums with saxophones by Jack McVea and Illinois Jacquet, and trombone by J.J. Johnson. McVea robustly kicks off “Lester Leaps In,” followed by hot buzzing from Johnson and Cole’s hot playing who is followed by Jacquet. Jacquet's incendiary solos starts off with a hint of Lester Young before he gets down with a hot solo that would set the template for all the bar walkers and honkers as he bellows on the tenor. Les Paul follows with strong single note runs mixed with chords before Cole takes a brief solo chorus as the horns take the song out. McVea sets the table for the swinging “Tea For Two,” with his Coleman Hawkins’ influenced playing followed by Cole with a solo that mixes his virtuosity and restraint. It is followed by Jacquet’s gutbucket tenor before another scintillating Paul solo.
After “Tea For Two” come perhaps the most celebrated performance from the initial concert, “Blues.” Jacquet’s solo on this track is legend as are the percussively rooted solos of Cole and Paul as Lee Young and Miller anchor the rock solid in-the-pocket-groove before the solos of McVea, Johnson and Jacquet. The blues playing here is as good as it gets and Jacquet’s solo is one of the greatest blues solos played by anyone on any instrument. The ballad “Body and Soul,” takes the tempo down with more marvelous playing. Cole is heard singing “Sweet Lorraine,” with Les Paul taking the spot usually held down by Oscar Moore. The performances of “I Found a New Baby,” “Rosetta,” and the brief rendition of “One O’Clock Jump,” provide more opportunity for the aggregation to raise the roof with their exuberant playing, and Cole is marvelous whether comping and trumpeting out a piano solo. Most, or all, of this specific disc has been available on a Verve reissue although that may be long-out-of-print. In any case, the JATP performances here never sound stale to these ears.
The final disc finds Cole primarily in the role of accompanist as he backs Dexter Gordon on a session that includes Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison on trumpet and this 1943 or 1944 session opens with Long Tall Dexter showing a strong Lester Young influence on a group of swing-based tunes including “I Found a New Baby,” “Sweet Lorraine,” and “Rosetta.” The small combo instrumental rendition of “Sweet Lorraine” contrasts with the two vocal renditions presented in this set. Dexter’s session closes with a jumping blues, “I Blowed and Gone.”
The Gordon session is followed by another legendary session, The Lester Young Trio, with the great saxophonist and pianist Cole joined by drummer Buddy Rich. From the opening of “On the Waterfront,” these are, in essence, magical duets between Young and Cole as Rich generally displays a light touch, even on the swinging tempo found on “Somebody Loves Me.” The trio romps on “I Found a New Baby,” while Rich sits out “Peg ‘O My Heart,” a marvelous display of Cole and Young’s magic together. Alternate takes from The Keynoters session are the final performances issued in this compilation.
Fans of Nat King Cole who are interested in the jazz side of this American master certainly will love the music here, although they may already own a good portion of the music released here. The packaging is first-class and includes full discographical and session information and the mastering sounds fine to these weathered ears. This might make a marvelous gift for the holidays or special occasions and should be readily available from a variety of sources. This was a present for myself.