Get your kicks from weighty reissue of Nat King Cole music

March 08, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

In all the excitement over the way Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" swept this year's Grammys, some pop fans might have felt that Cole's inspiration -- her father, Nat King Cole -- was somehow, er, forgotten.

Granted, his memory was at the heart of "Unforgettable" itself, looming over the project the way Nat's image towered over Natalie during her Grammy-broadcast performance of the album's title tune. But what of his original recordings? Have they been swept aside in the rush to celebrate his daughter's achievement?

Hardly. Over the past 18 months, Cole's recordings have been reissued at a record rate, with almost three dozen titles in print at this point. There's probably more music by Nat King Cole available at this point than there ever was during his lifetime.

For instance, who back then would ever have imagined a set as massively ambitious as "The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio" (Mosaic 138)? This limited-edition, mail-order only compilation is weighty in the most literal sense of the term, stretching almost 17 hours of music across 18 CDs or 24 LPs -- an almost backbreaking amount of music.

Even more amazing is the fact that the set, by definition, is less interested in Cole's performances as a pop singer than in his importance as a jazz pianist. That's not to say it overlooks his vocal recordings -- the set would have been significantly shorter had that been the case -- just that it assumes that the listener HTC either already has the pop hits, or isn't especially interested in that phase of Cole's career.

If that seems a tad elitist, well . . . it's supposed to. Mosaic, after all, isn't like other record companies. This Connecticut-based company specializes in lavishly exhaustive repackagings of classic jazz and blues recordings; its recent reissues have ranged from the exquisite big band jazz of "The Complete Roulette Live Count Basie" to classic blues of "The Complete Candid Otis Spann/Lightnin' Hopkins Sessions." (For a catalog, write Mosaic Records, 32 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902.)

Should the prospect of a Cole collection without "Mona Lisa," "Stardust" or "Unforgettable" itself strike you as missing the point, however, think again. For one thing, Cole's pop tendencies were just as strong in his trio recordings as they were when he worked with Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins; indeed, his first Top-10 hit, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," was cut during his fourth recording session for Capitol, and pops up just 11 tracks into the Mosaic set.

Moreover, by keeping its emphasis on the trio recordings, the Mosaic box makes it that much easier to trace the way Cole's delivery developed over the years. Some of that is simply a reflection of the set's insistence on including alternate takes alongside the commercially issued master versions, an approach that not only satisfies the completists in the audience, but lets the rest of us hear just how Cole shaped his performances.

Take, for example, the two versions of "I Don't Know Why (I Just Do)" recorded with the trio in 1946, during the same session that produced "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66." On the first version, Cole and company swing nicely through the middle of the song, but seem to lose track of the tune by the end of the piano solo. But the group is much better focused on the second attempt, with Cole playing down the rhythmic elements in favor of languorous phrases that seem almost to caress each verse, while guitarist Oscar Moore's solo trades the bebop overtones of the first attempt for a strong, bluesy lyricism. And in noting such differences, it's easier to hear how Cole conceived of these songs.

Cole was a natural crooner, with a light, resonant baritone and a warm, understated vibrato, but as effortless and unaffected as he made his hits seem, Cole's delivery wasn't just a happy accident. In truth, it was the result of continual refinement, a process this set makes easy to follow. Cole recorded and re-recorded many of the same songs over the course of his career, and the differences between each successive version can be wonderfully instructive.

For instance, when he first sang "It's Only a Papermoon" in 1943, he kept to the upper end of his register, using little vibrato and emphasizing the jazzy offhandedness of his phrasing. He returned to the song in 1956, and though his conception remained jazz-based, his execution is markedly different. Here, his sound is nowhere near as light as it had been 13 years earlier, as Cole plays off the edge of his low notes to punch the accents Sinatra-style instead of playing off the momentum of whole phrases.

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