Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nat King Cole Sings and George Shearing Plays" - An Unlikely Pairing

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“At the time of their births the chances of the two principals' in this lively and appealing album ever meeting, let alone combining forces in such an entrancing set of performances, would have been considered so remote as to be statistically insignificant. And on the face of it, what happened here probably should not have happened at all, for the two men could not have had more widely different backgrounds.
- Pete Welding, Jazz author, critic

“You never lose that Jazz feeling.”
- Nat “King” Cole to Don Freeman, Downbeat, October 6, 1950

“Some of the best news I've received in a long time came to me when I heard that one of my favorites albums of all times was to be re-released...the album I made with Nat Cole.
Words could never express the joy I felt during the entire time that this album was being made. There was, first of all, the meeting of the two musical minds. Then, there were the countless surprises that Nat threw at me. Let me give you an example. When Nat suggested that we do "Pick Yourself Up," my interest wasn't that high. I had recorded this in 1949 at a tempo which no longer excited me. Now, here came Nat with a very fresh approach...a tempo which would swing into the middle of the next year and a relaxed feeling that allowed time for the rather clever lyric to be thoroughly digested.
Ralph Carmichael, my partner in crime in the arranging department, always seemed to anticipate my musical thoughts and provided many of his own...thus making this collaboration most joyous.
I've worn out my copy of this album and the copies of many of my friends. Now, here it is on CD. This is why I say, "Some of the best news I've received in a long time came to me...." Enjoy it as much as I do.”
- George Shearing

When you reflect on the opening quotation by Pete Welding, the existence of the music on Nat King Cole Sings and George Shearing Plays could be the stuff that helps you believe in miracles.

Miracles notwithstanding, if your collection doesn’t include this recording, remedy that omission as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.

Aside from the fact that as pianists, both were enormous influences on the stylistic development of many of the great post World War II Jazz piano players, I always thought that George Shearing and Nat King Cole were responsible for some of the most beautiful Jazz ever created on the planet.

I was reminded of this fact recently went I heard on the car radio their version of the Bill Davis & Don Wolf tune - Azure-Te’. I [safely] hurried home from the errands that I was engaged in to locate the album containing their rendition of this song and, as a result, was pleasantly reacquainted with one of my all-time favorite albums – Nat “King” Cole Sings The George Shearing Quintet Plays [Capitol CDP 7 48332 2].

As an added bonus, when the recording was re-mastered and issued as a compact disc, Pete Welding was asked to provide the following informative and insightful insert notes which the editorial staff of JazzProfiles thought you might enjoy reviewing.

“At the time of their births the chances of the two principals' in this lively and appealing album ever meeting, let alone combining forces in such an entrancing set of performances, would have been considered so remote as to be statistically insignificant. And on the face of it, what happened here probably should not have happened at all, for the two men could not have had more widely different backgrounds. The singer, Nat "King" Cole, black, son of a Baptist minister, had been born March 17, 1917, in Birmingham, Ala., but was raised in Chicago where his family moved when he was still a youngster. The pianist, George Shearing, white, blind from birth, had been born on August 13, 1919, in London, England, where he was reared, studied music at The Linden Lodge School for the Blind, and spent the first three decades of his life. So, not only were the two distanced -and widely- by geography, but by profound cultural differences as well.

The likelihood of their paths ever crossing was slim indeed, but cross they did, and often enough so that, in time, it came to seem inevitable that one of those meetings would be memorialized on record. You hold the results in your hand. And while it would be fatuous to suggest they were somehow fated to make this album together, the incontrovertible fact is that with each passing year - as the two came of age, began pursuing careers in music, gained increasingly in experience, proficiency, mastery and, finally, great popularity - that eventuality came ever closer of being realized. The actuality took place in December of 1961 under the auspices of Capitol Records, to which both men were under contract, when at four recording sessions held on successive days the present set of performances was undertaken.

The common ground on which the two met was jazz, that vital and absorbing expressive idiom which is one of the glories of American music. Not only did Cole and Shearing share a deep commitment to this music, but each had perfected a singular mastery in its performance. Cole, let us not forget, had started his career as a jazz pianist and was well on the way to becoming one of the truly great ones until his accelerating success as a popular singer gradually led to his putting aside this aspect of his talents. As a young piano student in Chicago, he had been drawn to the music, and specifically to the playing of Earl "Fatha" Hines, one of the most brilliant, original and influential pianists in all of jazz history. Fired by Hines' compelling, audacious music, Cole set about mastering the rudiments of jazz piano, assimilated a number of other influences, and by the late 1930s had fashioned a mature, distinctive approach of his own, light, graceful and swingingly melodic  much like Teddy Wilson's in fact. His fast-growing command - was evidenced as early as 1936, when he made his first recordings with a sextet led by his bassist brother Eddie Cole.

During the remainder of the decade he sharpened his skills through playing engagements in his native city, which led to his forming a band to tour with the road company of Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along musical revue. The show folded in Long Beach, Ca., but Cole soon found work as a solo pianist in various Southern California nightspots. He formed his celebrated trio for a brief engagement at Los Angeles' Swanee Inn, and proved so popular that the trio was held over for more than a year. Incidentally, it was there, in answer to a patron's insistent requests, that Cole began singing, meeting with such favorable response that he soon was doing it more and more frequently. An engagement at Hollywood's Radio Room, where he was heard by record store proprietor Glenn Wallichs, led to Cole's being asked to join the artist roster of the record firm Wallichs, songwriter Johnny Mercer and film executive B.G. DeSylva had formed in late 1942, Capitol Records.

The rest is, as they say, history. From his very first recording session for the new label Cole achieved success with a song he had written Straighten Up And Fly Right, which reportedly sold half-a-million copies within a few months of its release. In the ensuing years Cole soon had outstripped that promising start, achieving phenomenal success with a long, uninterrupted succession of hit records, more than 75 of his singles placing on the lists of best-selling records from 1944 right up to his untimely death in 1965, many of them among the most successful popular recordings of our times, These were complemented by sizable numbers of long-play albums in which he demonstrated his fetching, seductive way with classic ballad standards, in the interpretation of which he was rivaled only by such superlative vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others of this rank, and in occasional instrumental programs which showed he had lost none of his formidable pianistic wizardry.

At much the same time Cole was investigating jazz, George Shearing was doing the same several thousand miles away in London. The blind pianist had first been attracted to the music through the recordings of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and other leading American jazz musicians he had heard as a teenager. Like Cole, he taught himself how to play the challenging new music, and by the middle 1930s had progressed so well that he began performing at jam sessions and in small clubs around London, which soon led to his first recordings, made in 1939 for Decca Records. Membership in the orchestra of Claude Bampton, comprised of 17 blind musicians, was followed by solo work, several years as featured pianist with the popular Ambrose Orchestra, and continuing recording activity under his own name, primarily as a soloist, though occasionally with small groups, as he gained in confidence and ability. Through the 1940s, in fact, his domination of his instrument in British jazz circles was virtually uncontested, Shearing topping the annual Melody Maker polls as the nation's foremost pianist seven years running.

A less dedicated or ambitious musician might have been satisfied with this achievement, but not Shearing. He knew that in order to grow further as a player he would have to test himself against the music's best and brightest. While this occasionally was possible in London when, as happened from time to time, he was able to play with visiting American jazz musicians, he felt the best way to go about it would be to place himself in a situation that ensured his being challenged by them on a steady, continuing basis. This, of course, meant moving to the U.S., and specifically to New York City, then as now the major center of jazz activity and a virtual proving ground for the serious player. Accordingly, Shearing made the move in December of 1947 and spent most of the following year performing at New York's Three Deuces, first as a soloist, later leading his own trio and quartet.

In 1949 he made his first recordings as leader of the George Shearing Quintet, one of the most distinctive and freshest-sounding small groups in all of modem jazz. The invigoratingly novel voicing Shearing devised for its instrumentation  - piano, guitar, vibraharp, bass and drums - was bright, appealingly elegant and the very epitome of "cool." Graceful, exuberant, finely detailed, easily accessible to the casual listener yet possessing more than enough focused invention to satisfy the most demanding jazz fan, the quintet was an immediate sensation. It quickly became one of the most popular small groups of the period, touring and performing incessantly, and enjoying great popular success with its recordings as well, a number of them, September In The Rain for example, among the most played records of the time. During the 1950s, in fact, the quintet's shimmering, distinctive sound was all but ubiquitous, heard everywhere - on radio and television, in films, theaters and nightclubs, at wedding receptions, country club dances and every like event that called for sophisticated music. In the decades since, it has been one of the most enduringly popular of all instrumental groups and its leader widely regarded for the consistently high standards of poised, elegant musicianship he has maintained in the group, which have made its music so exhilarating and enjoyable.

It was these qualities that made its collaboration with Nat Cole so special. And so apt. For the singer, who had made his earliest vocal recordings with the backing of his own jazz trio, to be accompanied by so adroit and accomplished a group as Shearing's must have been something like coming home to a familiar, welcoming environment. And for Shearing, a more than passable vocalist himself, as he's demonstrated on occasion, working with Cole was a special, joyous experience - as satisfying artistically as it was gratifying personally - one which the pianist recalls with great fondness and joy as one of the high points of his career, more than a quarter-century after it occurred.

As the enclosed compact disc shows so clearly, George's recollection is correct. What he, Cole and co-orchestrator Ralph Carmichael (whose contribution should not pass unmentioned) produced over those four days in December, 1961, was indeed memorable music, as enjoyable and deeply satisfying today as when first recorded. Each man was intimately familiar with, and appreciative of the other's music, which made their collaboration not only possible but stimulating and enjoyable as well. As a result, the recording sessions went smoothly and quickly-and happily, Shearing recalls -producing a program of performances that, because of the mutual respect Cole and Shearing had for one another, breathe warmth and affection and sincerity.

And above all else beauty It's the presence of this latter quality that has caused Shearing to have, as he notes, worn out several copies of this album over the last two-and-a-half decades. That's something that you and I, thanks to the technological miracle that has given us the compact disc, will never have to worry about. We can play this music as often as George has, and more, and it'll never wear out. And that's something, I think you'll agree, we can take the greatest pleasure in  - enduring music in an enduring format, Nat "King" Cole sings - George Shearing plays; we listen and marvel. Again and again and again, as often as we like.”

- Pete Welding

The following video contains a nice collection of images of both Nat and George with the Pick Yourself Up cut from the CD serving as the sound track.


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