I discovered Nat “King” Cole’s trio work early enough in my developmental process that I can’t really imagine my conception of a) swing, b) touch at the piano, or c) jazz as a vehicle for fun without his music. It’s weird for the same musician to be simultaneously hugely famous and totally underrated, but so it goes for the King, a widely-admired singer whose instrumental prowess and influence are known by far fewer. A day after his centennial, I’m still reflecting on some of his music (particularly alongside guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller in the classic drum-less trio) that particularly shaped my own burgeoning musicianship – here’s some of it.
1 ) “Sweet Lorraine”
When I think of relaxed swing, I often think of this song. And when I think of this song I think of Nat “King” Cole performing it. That so much attitude can be projected without a drummer is quite a testament to this trio’s artistry.
2 ) “Beautiful Moons Ago”
Back in the early ‘90s when I knew essentially nothing of Nat Cole as a pianist, I first heard this tune on a Benny Green record and then sought out the original version, which soon became one of my favorite ballads and favorite Nat Cole original compositions.
3 ) “Cole Capers”
For those inclined towards modern instrumental jazz, this is Exhibit A in just how important and ahead of his time Mr. Cole was as a pianist. The balance between relaxed flow and powerful assertiveness would seem almost oxymoronic if one didn’t have this sonic evidence of how gloriously it all comes together.
4 ) “It’s Only A Paper Moon”
This is another standard that was given its definitive treatment by the King Cole trio. The instrumental and vocal parts both sound and feel great and the subtle transition between them is masterful.
5 ) “Peg O’ My Heart” by Lester Young
This elegant ballad lets drummer Buddy Rich (present on the rest of this important session) take a breather and we hear the sensitive interplay between Nat and tenor saxophone giant Lester Young, along with a healthy dose (while Lester pauses for Nat to solo) of Nat’s relatively little-documented approach to solo piano.
6 ) “When I Fall In Love”
Nat’s best-known work is his crooning with lush string orchestras, and to be honest that is not the aesthetic with which I have the easiest time feeling in my element as a listener. But vocally he owns some of these songs (see “Nature Boy”) to such a degree that it doesn’t even matter. This is my personal favorite among those – an utterly perfect vocal rendition of a beautiful song.
7 ) “Prelude in C# Minor”
Similarly, I will admit that “jazzed-up” versions of European classical works tend not to be my personal cup of tea. But I can’t help but smile when I hear Nat and his trio tramsform this Rachmaninoff piece into something delightfully swinging.
8 ) “Solid Potato Salad”
If you think about it, there may not be another artist (save, maybe, for “Weird” Al Yankovic) who has so many good songs about food – “Frim Fram Sauce,” “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” and so on. This comparatively obscure one is my favorite – it’s literally been over 25 years since I’ve eaten potato salad without smiling because this song is stuck in my head (sometimes spilling over and singing it for bewildered onlookers – yeah, I’m that guy).
9 “Rhumba Blues”
Nat had a real proclivity for Latin/jazz hybrids before that was hip, and boy could he play the blues. This tune combines those two things into one infectious track.
10 ) “Blue Because of You” by Lionel Hampton
This burner is a feature for Lionel Hampton’s drumming (!) amidst other tracks featuring his vibes. Nat’s complete rhythmic ease at this bright tempo provides a good example of his command in a drum-fueled group, not the setting for which he’s best known as a player.