Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nat King Cole and Guests, 1956

By the mid-1950s, Nat King Cole had gradually concentrated on singing and had become a pop star thanks to a slew of commercially and artistically successful concept albums for Capitol. Not that he'd totally forgotten his past as the founder and leader of the trailblazing King Cole trio, which paved the way for so many similarly styled combos, but there was undeniably more money in pop singing, and he was gifted with a unique voice that captivated the public's imagination. And then, in 1956, Cole stepped back into jazz territory by revisiting his trio sound on an album entitled After Midnight. Cut over four sessions, the LP finds Cole playing piano and singing in the company of John Collins on guitar, Charlie Harris on bass, and Lee Young (Lester's brother) on drums.  Each session features a guest star, which is a fine idea because it adds depth to the sound of the trio-turned-quartet, particularly if we bear in mind that the guests are musicians of the caliber of trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, altoist Willie Smith, violinist Stuff Smith, and valve trombonist Juan Tizol.

As the title seems to imply, this is a very relaxed album, with everyone involved interacting seamlessly as Cole revisits classics such as "Sweet Lorraine," "Just You, Just Me," "Caravan" (with the benefit of composer Tizol's trombone), and "I Know That You Know." The ballads ("Blame It On My Youth," "You're Looking at Me") are moody, and there are also some nice surprises in a lovely, violin-laden reading of "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," with Stuff Smith in superb form, and the lesser-known "Don't Let It Go to Your Head." This is essential listening for any jazz aficionado, and the 1999 CD reissue adds six more tracks to the twelve on the original LP. The most interesting of these are a pensive ballad treatment of "You Can Depend on Me," usually associated with blues shouter and big band singer Jimmy Rushing, and a swinging take on Johnny Mercer's "Candy." Whether you're a fan of the King Cole trio or not, this is an album that won't disappoint, one of many records that I find myself returning to periodically and encountering something new with every new listen.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fred Astaire & Oscar Peterson, 1952

Few, if anybody, would disagree that Fred Astaire was one of the foremost dancers of the 20th century. But was he a jazz singer? Apparently, Astaire himself would laugh at the thought. He considered himself, as did most of his audiences, primarily a dancer and often derided his own abilities as a vocalist. Songwriters knew better, though, and recognized in his voice the perfect vehicle for their compositions. To be sure, his range was limited, but whatever he lacked in that department he more than made up for in phrasing and style. His singing is characterized by a rare elegance that is perfectly suited for the urbane melodies and witty lyrics of the songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin, among others. No wonder, then, that he introduced a large amount of tunes by these composers that have become standards, titles such as "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Night and Day," and "Fascinatin' Rhythm," to name but a few. And these were songs that helped put the great in the Great American Songbook.

Although he claimed not to take himself seriously as a vocalist, Astaire loved jazz and jazz musicians, which is hardly surprising, since there is quite a bit of a jazz element in his tap dancing. And he actually had a particularly soft spot for a record project that he did for Verve at the request of label owner Norman Granz, entitled The Astaire Story. In his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire recalls these sessions with a mixture of delight and admiration for the musicians with whom he worked: "I found this [album] a most interesting and enjoyable job as Oscar Peterson, Alvin Stoller, Flip Phillips, Charles Shavers, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and I cut these discs spontaneously on the spot without any prearranged orchestrations. This album, called The Astaire Story, with limited printings, became prominent in the collectors' item category" (301).

Oscar Peterson at the piano
Yet, much more than a mere collector's item, The Astaire Story is a very revealing portrait of Astaire the jazz singer, a relaxed crooner who instinctively plays with the beat and whose phrasing is so casual that at times it almost sounds as though he were reciting the lyrics. The program is made up almost entirely of songs associated with Astaire, and the LP format allows for lengthier arrangements of the tunes, punctuated by lovely solos from Peterson on piano, Shavers on trumpet, Phillips on tenor sax, and Kessel on guitar. Astaire is clearly enjoying himself on these dates, and he sounds as much at ease with Peterson's group as Bing Crosby does on Bing with a Beat accompanied by Bob Scobey (by the way, it's really too bad that nobody ever thought to pair up Der Bingle with Peterson). The result of the Astaire-Peterson sessions, which were held in Los Angeles in December 1952, is what Will Friedwald has called the climax of Astaire's recorded legacy, among the most spontaneous music that either man ever committed to wax, a classic set that offers a definitive glimpse of Astaire having fun and singing jazz in very good company.