...a joy for anyone whose appreciation of Cole goes beyond roasting Yuletide chestnuts.
Morag Reavley 2005
There's no mistaking those velvet-piled vocal chords. Warm, sandy, accessible, Nat King Cole's is a voice to curl up inside on a grey afternoon, a fleecy blanket for the soul.
His distinctive baritone and keyboard dexterity rapidly made him a musical phenomenon, and enriched all those who marketed it: Capitol Record's Hollywood headquarters became known as 'The House that Nat Built'. The downside is that his brilliant musicianship was channelled into commercial hits. Despite a hugely prolific career, Cole is now best known for a handful of over-played sentimental ballads.
This superb 49-track double-disc collection puts the records straight. There are plenty of familiar numbers ("Mona Lisa", "Nature Boy", "Unforgettable") but, rejoice, no "Christmas Song" or "When I Fall In Love".
Instead, the compilation airs a crop of little-heard gems by the King Cole Trio, the hugely popular piano-guitar-bass combo with which Nat sprang to fame in the 1940s. Dapper tunes Like "What Does It Take" and "You Don't Learn That In School" reveal Cole's wit and urbanity, even naughtiness, while the bluesy break-up song "Meet Me At No Special Place" hints at edgier qualities. There are some curiosities too, such as "Calypso Blues", a solo vocal with only bongos as backing.
There's also plenty of spiffing jazz piano. During the 1940s, before his singing career took over, Cole was best known as a glittering instrumentalist. His lightning improvisational skills are evident here in tracks such as "Blues In My Shower", "Cole Capers", and a giddily elaborate version of "Sweet Georgia Brown".
The liner notes deserve special mention for their snappy yet erudite commentary, which illuminates the song-writing industry of the mid-twentieth century, as well as providing some fascinating factoids. Cole's own song "Straighten Up and Fly Right", a big hit in 1944, apparently incorporates a phrase his preacher father would use in the pulpit. The notes on "Frim Fram Sauce", that great gastronomic nonsense song, even provide some background on the eponymous condiment.
Beautifully produced and expertly researched, this compilation is a joy for anyone whose appreciation of Cole goes beyond roasting Yuletide chestnuts. Simply swinging.