Nat King Cole – Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) – Resonance Records – Part 1 of 2

by | Oct 30, 2019 | Jazz CD Reviews, SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

Nat King Cole – Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) Resonance Records Deluxe Limited Edition – 3000 180gm Hand Numbered 10LP  Sets HLP9042 – Mastered by Matt Lutthans at Coherent Audio.*****

( Nat King Cole – piano & vocals; Oscar Moore – guitar; Wesley Prince – bass; Johnny Miller – bass; Red Callender – bass; Lester Young – tenor saxophone; Dexter Gordon – tenor saxophone; Harry “Sweets”Edison – trumpet; Clifford”Juicy” Owens – drums; Al Spieldick – drums)

This monumental release on Resonance Records of the earliest recordings of Nat King Cole was co-produced by Zev Feldman, Will Friedwald, Seth Berg, Matt Lutthans and Jordan Taylor and executive produced by co-president George Klabin of Resonance, all of whom are to be applauded for the conviction and dedication to bring these recordings to the listening public.

For many, Nat King Cole, was a famously popular balladeer of the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the best selling recording artists of his time. Few recalled, and Cole himself was reluctant to acknowledge, that he was one of the preeminent jazz pianists of that genre, rooted in the stylings of Earl “Fatha” Hines and Art Tatum. Additionally, Cole’s inventive single note playing was major influence on pianists such as Oscar Peterson and George Shearing among others.

The shear enormity of this project, which covers an eight year period and close to 200 tracks,  suggests that the review might be more digestible in  bite size chunks, so the writing will be in two parts and published separately.  Link to  Part 2 Review.

Part 1 — Chicago 1936 – Hollywood 1940 ( Discs 1,2,3,4,5)

Nat Cole began his recording career for Decca Records in 1936 as a 17 year old gifted pianist with a band under the name of Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers. Eddie Cole was Nat’s much older brother who had been a bass player with famous Noble Sissle and his Sizzling Syncopators. The players who were in this band for the session were; Nat on piano, Eddie Cole vocal and bass, Tommy Thompson alto sax, Bill Wright tenor sax, Kenneth Roane trumpet, and Jimmy Adams drums. The group recorded four tunes all composed by Nat; “Honey Hush”, “Stompin’ At The Panama”, “Bedtime” and “Thunder”.

The band was enthusiastic but inconsistent. However, even at this early stage Nat’s playing well above the other members of the band and was filled with stylish playing throughout the keyboard.

The next recording encounter with Nat Cole was in September 1938 in Hollywood ( Los Angeles). By that time he had formed his first trio with guitarist Oscar Moore (who became a consistent presence with Nat until 1947 when he walked away from the band) and bassist Wesley Prince. During this period “commercial transcriptions” were the mainstay of radio broadcasts, since it was not legal to play commercial recordings over the air.

The leading transcription services at the time were Standard Transcriptions for which Cole and the trio recorded 126 titles between 1938 and 1941, and a substantially fewer number for Davis & Schwegler, Ammor Records, and Keystone Transcriptions.

The initial sides for Standard began with a Johnny Mercer ditty “Mutiny In The Nursery” and was followed by “F. D. R.  Jones”, “The Blue Danube” and “Jingle Bells”. The group’s style was somewhat frisky and filled with youthful exuberance. They often fell into harmonious scat singing as the tune required.

Over the course of the time frame and many transcriptions that the Cole Trio did for Standard, the changes in both Cole’s playing and the group’s harmony vocals were recognizable. Cole’s quickness, coverage and authority on the keyboard jumped out in the 1938 cut “With Plenty Money And You”, but rose to another level in the 1939 take on the “Fatha” Hines number “Rosetta” which was filled with creative amazement and harmonic  revelations.

The Trio’s ability and versatility prompted Standard in 1939 to pair them with two vocal groups: Pauline And Her Perils a pseudonym for Six Hits And A Miss and a black male group The Dreamers which was a lesser known version of The Ink Spots. The eight cuts that were put down with Pauline were top notch with a great sound on some well-known titles including “My Blue Heaven”, “I Was Doing All Right” and “I Can’t Get Started”.

The session with The Dreamers was less successful as the group was not as polished as Pauline and the material was of unknown provenance with the exception of the up beat “Jump, Jack, Jump” by Charles “Lucky” Roberts.

Portrait Nat King Cole, by Gottlieb

Nat King Cole,
by William P. Gottlieb

In early 1940, the Trio did a session of four tracks with Ammor Records (Automatic Music Machine Operators Recording), which was destined for the jukebox market rather than radio play. The tunes were; “I Like To Riff”, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”, “Black Spider Stomp” and “By The River Saint Marie”.  For this recording the drummer Lee Young was added to the Trio.

The relationship between Cole and Lee Young went back to 1937 when Cole first arrived in Los Angeles. Lee Young was just slightly older than Cole and came from a musical family that included his older brother the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. He knew his way around the Los Angeles music scene and so he provided Cole with the perfect entree into this world.

So when this session came up and there was an opportunity to add a drummer, Cole naturally thought of Lee Young. The Trio had been playing these tunes for some period and had the arrangements down cold. The addition of a drummer did not really change their approach and in effect did not add to the quality of the session.

In July 1940, the Trio completed twelve sides for Keystone Transcription. Four of the tracks were with vocalist Maxine Johnson; “I’m A Perfect Fool Over You”, “Lovely Little Person”, “Love Me Sooner” and “Sentimental Blue”.  Of greater interest, however, is the four vocal tracks by Nat Cole: “Let’s Do Things”, Jumpy Jitters”, “Nothing Ever Happens” and “What’cha Doin’ To My Heart”. Here he is on his own, without any harmonization from Moore and Prince. The future direction of the Trio is clear.

End of “Nat King Cole:  Hittin’ the Ramp”, Part 1.

Full track listing for the 10 LP edition is available at resonancerecords.org

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—Pierre Giroux




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