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Staying up late with Nat Cole
Journeying into the late-night hours of After Midnight'
There is still a sense that when sharing that Nat Cole was one of jazz’s most formidable pianists and small-group leaders before becoming one of the music’s most beloved and celebrated ballad singers, you’re passing along inside information.
For some, it may even be news that Cole recorded anything other than ‘The Christmas Song.’
Listening to After Midnight, which Cole recorded in August and September of 1956, can bring to the forefront how our perceptions of Nat Cole have changed over the years ever since his Trio set a new standard for jazz in a small-group setting.
On the album, Cole is joined by a small group of John Collins on guitar, Charlie Harris on bass and Lee Young (Lester’s brother) on drums. Jack Costanzo’s bongos augment the quartet on ‘Caravan’ and ‘The Lonely One.’
Bringing extra texture is the addition of an added soloist—Harry “Sweets” Edison, Juan Tizol, Willie Smith and Stuff Smith—who each take the spotlight on three of the album’s 12 tracks.
Edison’s trumpet, mostly muted, is one of the most identifiable sounds in jazz, gliding along brightly and effortlessly. Tizol’s valve trombone has a pure, brittle sound. Willie Smith’s alto is jaunty and ebullient with a tone straight out of the Benny Carter school. Stuff Smith’s violin is bluesy and oh so sensuous. They up the jazz cred here. But no matter who joins Cole here, this is Cole’s date—if there is any doubt of that, take a look at the album cover. The photo on the front is composed around him seated at the piano, face toward the camera. Collins, Harris and Young are not only in the background, they are out of focus.
The thought of After Midnight can conjure a mental image. Here’s one. Picture a nightclub. It’s about half past midnight. The date crowd has long dispersed into the dark. Others, fighting tiredness or the cold, hard fact that another workday awaits in a matter of hours have, one by one, reconciled their tab as well as their return to the real world. What remains are the diehards, the nocturnal nighthawks, those wanting to wrest just a few more kicks out of the day.
The musicians on the bandstand are now playing for themselves. The tempos get a little slower, a bit more relaxed, a few old favourite are dusted off, a musician pal in the crowd is invited to sit in and a cutting contest may erupt. This is all the sound of After Midnight.
Listen to the opening of ‘Sometimes I’m Happy.’ Stuff Smith’s violin in the opening establishes the languid late-night atmosphere. Cole’s vocal is full of reflection, balancing the contrasting feelings of happy and blue that the opening couplet lays out. The feeling is one of the listener almost eavesdropping on a moment of private regret. Stuff Smith and Nat Cole split a solo chorus, and both mine the bluesy feeling inherent in this standard.
‘When I Grow Too Old to Dream’ has an almost identical feel. The tempo may be just a hair brighter but the air of regret remains, especially through Stuff Smith’s colourations, but Cole’s vocal leavens things with its underlying message of “She may have left me, but it’ll be OK.”
The late night, though, is not only for mourning. On a bandstand, it can be a time for musicians to size each other up, to challenge and test one’s mettle. ‘I Know That You Know’ is a standard that has often been used to do that. It seems suited for a furious pace to see how a player can navigate the tune’s harmonic structure—think of the version Dizzy Gillespie recorded with Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt in 1957 to conclude Sonny Side Up. After a vocal chorus, in which Cole hangs way back behind the tempo, Stuff and Cole each take a full solo chorus and then trade fours, ploughing through with lightning-fast runs. The verdict: Cole’s jazz chops are quite well intact, thank you very much.
Late night can also be a time of reflection, to think about past glories, to reminisce about the old days and to remember what it was to be young. The three tracks featuring Harry “Sweets” Edison are re-recordings of signature pieces of the old Cole Trio: ‘Sweet Lorraine,’ ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ and ‘(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.’ Here, the feeling is one of absolute ease, of a happy reunion where the time that has elapsed between gatherings seems like no time at all. These are songs that Cole knows inside-and-out. He sounds like he is having a ball.
But, the feeling of coming home after a long absence can continue long after one leaves once again. It shows in the three tracks that feature Willie Smith. There’s a playful mood that threads ‘Just You, Just Me,’ ‘You’re Looking at Me’ and ‘Don’t Let It Go to Your Head’ that anticipates an approach to popular song—casual, slightly ironic and laden with swagger—that became the calling card of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bobby Darin and others that took their measure.
Our main concern here, though, remains the hours after midnight and Juan Tizol, one of countless musicians who passed through Duke Ellington’s band with a singular voice and approach to his instrument, coaxes Cole back there. Even an up-tempo ‘Caravan,’ in which Tizol received a rare musician co-writing credit with Ellington, has traces of melancholia, primarily through Tizol’s sound: pure, thin and direct. On ‘Blame It On My Youth,’ Cole and Tizol work together to mine every ounce of emotion out of a very touching song.
Nat Cole’s 1947 recording of ‘Nature Boy’ was a key record in his transition from a jazz pianist and small-group leader to a ballad singer. When listening to ‘The Lonely One,’ the lyric and the light cha-cha rhythm harken back to this landmark recording. One wonders if its inclusion here was meant as a sly wink to those who had followed the evolutions in Cole’s career over the years.
No matter how late one wishes to stay out, no matter how much one wishes to not go home, closing time will eventually come. The last stragglers have to leave—whether they do actually go home or find an even later night dive is anyone’s guess—the musicians pack up and head out, there’s a last wipe-down of the bar, the lights go out and the front door is locked. We’re closed for another night.
After Midnight was a return for Nat Cole into the world of jazz, though listening to the album, one can be mistaken for thinking he had never been away. True, some of the energy and youthful exuberance that was the hallmark of the Nat Cole Trio has been smoothed out but it’s not to the detriment of the experience of listening to the music. After Midnight would turn out to be Cole’s last overtly jazz recording, more ballad albums, swing albums, Christmas recordings and more popular and novelty fare (‘Ramblin’ Rose,’ ‘Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer,’ for example) were in the offering. But no matter what Cole sang or played, his purity of tone, his directness of communication, his ease came through. Only the best can do that.
The Fire, Brimstone and Understanding of Roy Brooks: These days, we are in a golden age of archival live jazz. Zev Feldman’s Resonance Records has truly led the way over the past few year. So it is no surprise that he is partly behind, along with Cory Weeds of Reel to Real Records, the recent release of Understanding by the late drummer Roy Brooks.
A live recording from November 1, 1970 in Baltimore organized by the Left Bank Jazz Society, Brooks is joined by trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett (Shaw and Garnett had previously teamed up, memorably, on Andrew Hill’s Lift Every Voice), pianist Harold Mabern and bassist Cecil McBee. To call this group an all-star band is almost insufficient.
The two-CD set (also available on three LPs) includes over two hours of music with five of the six tracks clocking in over 20 minutes—Garnett’s ‘Taurus Woman’ tops 32 minutes—of often incendiary and intense jazz.
Here was my reaction on Twitter while listening to the first CD a few nights ago.
And while hearing the 2nd CD the following evening.
Rare is the recording that lives up to the hype. Rarer still is the one that reminds me why there is almost nothing quite as exciting as great jazz.
Understand this, Understanding is the real deal. For fans of modern jazz, it’s a must-buy.
When Joni Met Jimi: June brought the happy news that the next volume of Joni Mitchell’s Archive series covering her years on Reprise Records from 1968 to 1971, will be coming on October 29, just about a year after the first volume was released.
We’ve already been treated to a sneak preview of five outtakes from the Blue sessions and late last month, we got a second sneak peek with the release of a live recording of ‘The Dawntreader’ from March 19, 1968 at Ottawa’s Café Le Hibou. The song, full of elliptical lyrics and spare accompaniment by Mitchell on guitar, would appear on Mitchell’s debut album Song to a Seagull—my favourite of her Reprise albums, a classic in the acid-folk genre.
What is especially noteworthy about this live recording is that Jimi Hendrix taped it. It’s also a minor miracle that we are now able to hear it as the tape was stolen and presumed lost. Brad Wheeler of the Globe and Mail has the complete improbable story. Read it here. Listen closely to Mitchell to hear the amazing serendipity of traffic noises as she sings the line, “Leave behind your streets he said and come to me.”
New previews of upcoming releases: Over the past week, there have been tantalizing previews of three upcoming releases that I am extremely excited about.
I’ve written twice already about the Beach Boys’ box set chronicling the sessions for Sunflower and Surf’s Up. Already, an early version of ‘Big Sur’ and a live recording of ‘Suzie Cincinnati’ have been released. On July 30, two new tracks were posted. One, an acapella version of ‘Surf’s Up’ and the second, a version of ‘This Whole World’—one of the highlights of Sunflower—with an alternate ending. The set will be released on August 27 in multiple configurations . Hopefully there is a least one more track coming out before then.
George Harrison’s epic All Things Must Pass will be re-released this Friday (Rolling Stone has an in-depth preview of the most notable demos and unreleased tracks that will be included). Recently, an alternate take of ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ was released—a slower, stripped-down version of a song that appears twice on the original triple-LP set.
A previously unreleased Johnny Cash concert recording is coming on September 24 of Cash in San Francisco on April 24, 1968. The thought of Cash, whose appeal spanned far beyond the confines of country music, appearing in the epicentre of the counterculture is wild enough. That the recording was made by Owsley Stanley, Mr. LSD, is even more mind melting. Listen to this snippet of the show as Cash sings ‘Cocaine Blues’ and also references the recent release of his classic recording from Folsom Prison.