I've been You-Tubing lately, with predictable results.
There are things you seemingly rarely hear, or read, or see, but which are instantly recognizable, and inspiring, but which you always seem to "forget" about. I'm not sure why this should be. I've been listening to jazz, swing and pop for over 50 years, but every time I hear a piece by Nat King Cole's Trio, I throw up my hands and exclaim "Man, oh, man, that's the most underrated musical phenomenon of all time! It's been much too long since I listened to that, what could I have been thinking?"
Cole was among the first--if not in fact the first--to try out the small trio concept based around a jazz piano. Cole's Trio, him on the keyboard with a bass and a guitar back-up, later became the regular setting for a host of talented composer-singers such as Tatum, Jamal, Peterson, Ray Charles, etc. The idea of using a couple sidemen to weave a tightly focused harmony had been common in classical compositions ("chamber music") for centuries. During the Swing Era, the tendency was to expand the down-river Dixie "band" concept into a full jazz "orchestra" but the core Swing Era was fairly short-lived, and the Depression and War years made the big group economically unviable, and besides, times (and tastes) were a-changin'. Cole's intimate, upbeat, and jazzy-sexy singing prefigured the 1940's and 1950's torchy tradition, and Cole himself moved on, abandoning the keyboard in favor of straight stand-up solo voicings.
In my view (and I'm not alone), this was really a shame. Cole was a wonderful jazz pianist, certainly as good as anyone during his era (Teddy Wilson, Shearing, Earl Hines, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Count Basie, etc.). Cole's years bridge the Swing Era, the early Bop and Progressive Jazz style Era, and finally the Fifties Pop style, eventually capitulating to Rock. By the mid-1950's, Cole had abandoned the keyboard (and his Trio) for television spots, and straight solo singing gigs. In retrospect, of course, this was really inevitable. The audience for purely instrumental solo-ing had always been limited, in comparison with the growing dance band and pop concert scenes, in addition to the lucrative recording business. As the Big Bands shrank or broke up, smaller groups like Cole's Trio could still find work, while the travel and board expenses were manageable.
There's a kind of easy ingratiating quality to all of Cole's music. Aside from the caressing baritone, which he was always in complete command of, his own arrangements from the 40's are always constructed around a distilled, integrated version, the very essence of any lyrical line. He was never a "virtuoso" showing off the way many jazz greats could be at times. It's interesting to speculate about what kind of solo keyboard work he might have done into the LP era, when sides could be expanded to 5 or 10 or even 15 minute sets.
If you had to choose, you'd certainly take the wonderful singing over the pianist, and mourning the loss of something like Cole's instrumental gift is really just a way of regretting the decline of Swing music in general, I suppose. Also, Cole's abandonment of the group seems to have spelled the end of his composing and arranging career. At Capital, he shared Nelson Riddle with Sinatra. Sadly, at the end, his only successes were the "novelty" tunes, like the "Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days" and I'm always amazed at how young he was at his death, from lung cancer, at the age of 45 in 1965, the year I graduated from high school.
In 1948, when Cole purchased a house in an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles, members of the local property owners association told Cole they didn't want undesirables like him moving in. Cole said "Neither do I, and if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain." The Ku Klux Klan placed a burning cross on his lawn. Throughout his life, Cole dealt first-hand with racial prejudice, and eventually gave up performing anywhere in the South, after an incident in which he was almost kidnapped.
Listening to these old recordings from the 1940's and 1950's, I sometimes feel as I once did, as a child, that I had lived in an earlier time, and experienced the world my parents had, because the oppressively omnipresent vestiges and carry-overs from those years seemed so much more powerful than the world in which we actually lived (the 1950's and 1960's). And in a sense, that's true: the music and the stories and the memories of those who lived through the Depression, the War and the early years of the Cold War were a powerful evocation of a time that was more vividly alive than the world they created for their children. But we were soon to create our own dramas--Vietnam, the Counterculture and Conservative backlash, the whole Boomer phenomenon which is just ripening now into later age.
Here are a handful of YouTube clips of Cole Trio pieces:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50efrirBImc (Better to be By Yourself) --check out the keyboard action!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKB_RpYvDNM (Moonlight in Vermont, piano solo--lovely meditative stuff)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy4I16awsow (Baby, Baby All the Time--I can hear early Jamal's style inside this arrangement from 1946)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qf55piLGFOo&feature=related (Sweet Georgia Brown--just for Cole's keyboard riffs)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWfE3Upy7jQ (Too Marvelous For Words - April 11, 1946, this is so much more lyrical than anything being composed these days, why wouldn't anyone be nostalgic for a time in which this was possible, instead of the crud being done today?)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc5RMYvXOhA (Paper Moon--innovative keyboard riffs)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLNnHPXc4CA (What'll I do?--his very slow, romantic style)