Nat was surely a smooth singer and a gentle swinger. But he was also a consummate jazz piano player who recorded secretly as a sideman for Keynote and Mercury – using amusing pseudonyms – even as he rose to fame recording hit after hit for Capitol Records.
Riffin’: The Decca, JATP, Keynote and Mercury Recordings, a 3-CD box set on Hip-oSelect.com’s Verve Select imprint, features Nat backing his many friends in the 1940s, as well as his original King Cole Trio singles on Decca – a total of 53 tracks significantly restored and remastered, and housed in a beautiful 7 3/8” square box set with a 30-page book stuffed with rare photos, a brilliant essay by David Ritz, detailed session notes and reproductions of the original releases’ artwork, from 78 RPM labels to 10-inch LP covers and much more.
Although famous for his singing, Nat was a sympathetic sideman revered by musicians for his taste, elegance and grooving riffs. He got that rep first with his brother Eddie’s band the Solid Swingers, then in his own King Cole Trio in the early 1940s, when he was first heard vocalizing. These are the tunes recorded for Decca that make up most of Disc 1; best known among them is his first hit, “Sweet Lorraine.”
Bonus tracks include four swingin’ Keynoter label recordings from ’46, led by saxophonist Willie Smith and featuring one “Lord Calvert” – a.k.a. Nat King Cole on piano. Nat was also the pianist for Norman Granz’s first Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) concerts, trading solos with the future legend Les Paul and others in the summer of ’44 – while he’s otherwise a headlining superstar – and those rousing live jam sessions make up Disc 2.
The set’s Disc 3 features Nat as “Aye Guy,” playing behind Dexter Gordon, and Lester “Pres” Young and Buddy Rich – significant sessions that are Dex’s first as a leader and Pres’ first after a horrific Army stint. Bonus tracks are alternates of the Keynoters tracks.
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