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.

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