Monday, May 3, 2021

One for the Ages - "Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays"

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



“Cole and Shearing were predestined to make beautiful music together. The two men were born just a few months apart (Cole in March 1919, Shearing in August) and both were among the preeminent jazz piano players of all time. Extending the parallel, both first came to the attention of the jazz public via the remarkable small combos that they led, the King Cole Trio and the George Shearing Quintet.”

  • Will Friedwald


“I ONCE INTERVIEWED GEORGE SHEARING regarding a completely different subject, but when he started thinking about his absolute favorite albums, he immediately began talking about Nat King Cole and "the album that we did together." He was very specific—he didn't just refer to it as "Nat King Cole and George Shearing" or something like that; he quoted the title exactly right in a way most musicians rarely would, as Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays. If he could have managed some Victor Borge-style phonetic punctuation, he would have pronounced the slash as well.


Shearing gave credit for the basic idea—for putting the two of them together—to Ralph, something that Carmichael never claimed for himself. "Ralph Carmichael had the idea. And it might have been either Dave Cavanaugh [Shearing's producer at the time] or Lee Gillette who started talking about it. And it didn't take very long to sell me on Nat Cole. Not only was he a marvelous singer, but he was also one of the most underrated jazz pianists I've ever met in my life. I mean, unfortunately or fortunately, probably his singing became such a big hit that not too many people around today know about the King Cole Trio and what great piano there was on that,"


The finished album would be co-credited to Gillette and Tom Morgan as producers, although Cavanaugh also helped pick some of the tunes. And while Shearing gave a lot of credit to Carmichael, many of the charts were worked up from quintet arrangements by Shearing himself. Carmichael's major credit was located on both the front and the back, as an extension of the album title: "Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays ... with String Choir Directed by Ralph Carmichael."


"We had some meetings, of course," said Shearing, "about what we were going to do." Carmichael remembered the pre-production meetings on that project very vividly. "It was in the Tower. And I had my score paper there and I was taking notes, and oh it was terrible! Because, we'd get everything set and then Nat would say 'Wait a minute, I think George should take the first instrumental break when we finish the first chorus.' So, I'd erase everything and put the new directions in, but then George would say 'Let's see, what key were we going to do it in? No, I don't want to do that in D flat—I think E flat is a better key for me.' So, I would have to erase and start again. Well, we spent about two hours up there, and when we finished, I don't think we had routined more than two or three tunes. It was just a waste of time."


Rather than talk it through, they decided they would set the routines— the basic outline of the arrangements—together in the studio, with Shearing at the piano. Carmichael found it was easier for the two to play and sing their way through the songs rather than plan them in the abstract. "And that way we could record all of those changes and all I'd have to do would be to go through about 30 or 40 minutes of talk, fast forward to the last two or three minutes, cause the final decision would be right there at the end, you see. So that worked out real good—we got all the keys and the routines. Wouldn't it be something to hear those tapes now? I don't know where they were, but it was a hoot 'cause I did listen to them after the fact, you know. I kept them around for quite a while. I don't know what ever happened to them, but I should be kicked in the britches for letting them get away."


This was the rare Cole project that didn't use any of the King's men, his regulars in his touring rhythm section. Rather, the whole point was to use Shearing's idiom, his sound, his approach, his guys—vibraphonist Emil Richards, guitarist Al Hendrickson, bassist Al McKibbon, plus a ringer on drums, Shelly Manne, the storied percussionist, already a bandleader to be reckoned with, who would make several guest appearances with the Shearing Quintet.



Cole and Shearing were predestined to make beautiful music together. The two men were born just a few months apart (Cole in March 1919, Shearing in August) and both were among the preeminent jazz piano players of all time. Extending the parallel, both first came to the attention of the jazz public via the remarkable small combos that they led, the King Cole Trio and the George Shearing Quintet. In 1950, Cole said of Shearing, "He's a fine player, and he's done more than anyone else in America to interest the ordinary people in modern jazz. Of course, he didn't think up the locked-hand style of playing; I guess Milt Buckner did that. But he did the music business a lot of good, especially in New York." (However, Shearing had probably learned the "locked-hand" style from Cole rather than Buckner.) Both Cole and Shearing achieved even greater fame and rewards by adding a pop dimension to their music, which they brought about by annexing orchestras and strings to their sound.


It was probably Cole's idea that the set should primarily consist of ballads. Both these men were originally known as jazz musicians, but at this point in their lives, they had love songs on their mind. The mood throughout is similar to The Touch of Your Lips, but despite an approximately equal number of strings and the addition of Shearing’s piano and his quintet, the sound is even lighter and, as musicians like to say, "transparent." The orchestral textures are completely open, beautiful but not syrupy, and enticing without being dissonant. In fact, even without the element of Cole's marvelous voice, these are some of the most attractive backgrounds ever written for Shearing's piano (quite a compliment, in that Shearing worked with Billy May and many other giants of pop-jazz orchestration, in addition to being a distinguished arranger himself). Carmichael would also write settings for the piano playing of Stan Kenton, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and pop star Roger Williams, but nothing would surpass his work here.


Cole / Shearing is a remarkable piece of work from start to finish: not one of the songs here is obvious or overdone, nor is the way they are sung, played and arranged. Just looking at the list of songs selected tells you that here were two major musical mavens looking for the best and most interesting material they could possibly come up with. There would be plenty of time to make hits, as Cole's catalog from this period attests, but the idea here was simply to produce the most exquisite music that it was possible for two great artists, working in collaboration, to make.


The album was taped over four dates, from December 19 to 22, 1961, about a week after Cole returned home from his winter run at the Sands. On the first date, Carmichael remembered, "What George doesn't know is that Nat always comes about 20 to 30 minutes late. Not because he doesn't care, but as a favor to me—he knows that gives me a chance to run a couple of the tunes and get the clams out. And so, he can walk in and we can go right to work without having him stand around while I'm making corrections, you see. So, George arrived on time, and as a matter of fact it was during that wait that he complimented me on the arrangements, how much he liked them, before that first date. Now on the second date, Nat is coming 30 minutes late, but George comes 45 minutes late! Now on the third date, we got to laughing, because we thought neither one of them would ever show up, because they were always trying to outdo each other. We finally got the album done, but it was fun to see the one-up-manship, how each one would want to come a little later than the other one."


The project seems to have been put together in that same spirit of friendly give-and-take; what you might call "coop-etition." For instance, George says, "How about 'Let There Be Love?'" He would know that one, since it was a British song from the early war period when he was one of the stars of the London jazz scene. Then Nat says, "How about 'There's a Lull in My Life?'" and I'll bet anything he remembered it from Duke Ellington and Ivy Anderson. The same thing goes for "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good"). And so on. Each collaborator also took the opportunity to include several songs from his own past. Apart from the parallels between the careers of the twin protagonists, the relationship between the two men and their material was equally organic. For Cole, there were two remakes, Otis Rene's "I'm Lost" (1943) and the Bishop's Wife theme, "Lost April" (1948). (One suspects that he was thinking about these older songs.)


It was Cole, Shearing recalled, who insisted on including Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up," which had been a signature song for the Shearing Quintet since they recorded it in 1950. "When Nat said, 'Let's do 'Pick Yourself Up,' well, I'll tell you, years after my original conception of 'Pick Yourself Up,' I was no longer that enamored of it." The pianist said, "I mean I still love the tune and the lyric; I was just tired of my 1950 conception of it. I did it at that fast tempo because I wanted to get that little fugue-thing in at the beginning. But I couldn't really see Nat doing it like that. But Nat said he had a new idea for it, and he hummed it for me. And that was the kind of inspiration that happened all the way through that album on those meetings, because if he initially had an idea that hadn't occurred to me, it took him precisely two seconds to sell it to me."


"Let There Be Love" makes use of a gospel-style choir of strings, and the countermelody they play is very similar to Bobby Timmons's hard bop classic "Moanin'." "Let There Be Love" became, over the years, the "hit" from the album, and the track one most often hears on the radio, an arrangement used as a template by other, later groups. As a representation of this particular Anglo-American alliance, several of the selections have international leanings: "Let There Be Love" is British, "Azure Te'' is jazz organist Wild Bill Davison's depiction of Paris, and "Serenata" by Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parrish is treated in a lightly Latin fashion that suggests that the three principals were already familiar with the bossa nova. 


Ellington's "I Got It Bad" was already a jazz standard and Bart Howard’s waltz "Fly Me to the Moon" was about to become one. "I Got It Bad" was normally done either bluesy and torchy, but Cole and Shearing take it more romantically, and that ain't bad at all—in fact, it's good. This is three years before the iconic Sinatra-Basie version of "Fly Me to the Moon''—and here, on the original album front cover, the song is listed under the original title "In Other Words," but on the back, it's given as "Fly Me to the Moon."


Cole / Shearing is also the album that made "A Beautiful Friendship" into a hip favorite; if the album had a title other than the names of its two co-stars, this should have been it. This was an outstanding song by the team of Kahn and Styne—not Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne—but Donald Kahn (the son of the famous Chicago-based lyricist Gus Kahn) and Stanley Styne (son of Jule). It's a beautiful song for Cole, and it's in the tradition of his great Trio numbers, winding up with what Scott Fitzgerald once called "a Saturday Evening Post ending," and it's a worthy successor to "The Best Man" and "I've Got a Way with Women."


The closest thing to a misstep on the original album is "Don't Go," a pleasant-enough song by two old pros Al Stillman and Guy Wood (another Brit), but not up to the other eleven on the LP. It's regrettable that the two principals chose "Don't Go" instead of Wood's authentic masterpiece of a song, "My One and Only Love." (We'll have to content ourselves with Sinatra and Johnny Hartman on that one.) Two absolutely stunning standards, "Everything Happens to Me" and "Guess I'll Go Home This Summer" had to wait another twenty-five years to be released. (The third "bonus" song is "The Game of Love," a tricky Latin tune by Shearing percussionist Armando Peraza that they were wise to leave off.)


Ralph Carmichael recalled one more incident that illustrated the camaraderie between himself, Nat, and George. (Incidentally, for those who may not know, this is a good place to mention that the late Shearing was blind.) "We were in the studio—it was the first date. And here again, Capitol had given me a few extra strings, because I asked for them. This was in the first twenty minutes or so, so Nat was not yet here. But George was sitting over at his piano. And George knows the layout of the studio—he knows where the mikes are, and how not to bump into things, and music stands, and all that. So we do this run through and the strings have a lot of stuff going on, and George is sitting a little bit behind me and to my right—probably a distance of twelve or fifteen feet. And we finish, and it's quiet in the studio. And I'm looking over at him and he's pushing his piano bench back, and he gets up and he shuffles over to me, puts his hand out, finds my shoulder, puts his face right up to my ear and he says, 'You're a son of a bitch!' That was his way of telling me he liked the chart! And then he turns around and shuffles back. That's the greatest compliment I ever had in my life!"


Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays was a milestone project in the careers of both stars. Shearing told me on several occasions that the one album he always wanted to make, but was never able to, was a collaboration with Sinatra. But of all the albums he actually did make, including team-ups with Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton, Carmen McRae, Mel Torme, and John Pizzarelli (The Rare Delight of You, 2001, which recreated the famous cover shot of the 1961 album), his favorite was Cole /Shearing.


"A Beautiful Friendship ?" Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays was all that and much more.”



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