This album is quite unusual. Recorded shortly after Nat King Cole's death, pianist Oscar Peterson takes vocals on all but one of the dozen selections, sounding almost exactly like Cole. Peterson, who rarely ever sang, is very effective on the well-rounded program whether being backed by a big band (arranged by Manny Albam) on half of the selections, or recreating both the spirit of the Nat King Cole Trio and his own group of the late '50s during a reunion with guitarist Herb Ellis and basssist Ray Brown.
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
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Nobody but Oscar Peterson could have made this album. When the music world loses an artist who for many years has been beloved and world-renowned, it is not uncommon for recorded tributes to be dedicated to his memory. If the performer was a singer, the dedication most often will be offered by another singer; if an instrumentalist, by another artist who plays the same instrument. (In the 24 years since Bunny Berigan passed away, just about every trumpet player of any consequence has recorded "I Can't Get Started", including some too young to recall how the cycle started.)
In the case of Nat Cole there is, of course, a twofold memory. On February 15, 1965, the world lost a unique and universally respected interpreter of popular songs; but millions also mourned the death of a man whose impact as a pianist was profound and enduring.
There are some curious parallels between the careers of Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson. In the history of each we find a man trained from childhood as a pianist, but blessed by nature with a voice of exceptional quality with which he was reluctant at first to experiment. In both careers the first years of international importance, and of major musical achievement, were due to the cohesion and intimacy of a trio comprising piano, guitar, and bass.
Both men gained early encouragement during their formative years from Norman Granz. Ralph J. Gleason once wrote: "Nat Cole's work on Granz's first Jazz at the Philharmonic sessions will last as long as jazz is heard and played." A few years after those sessions, in 1949, Granz brought Peterson to New York from Canada for a JATP appearance. This was the beginning of an association that has lasted, as business deal and personal friendship, up to the present.
Probing a little deeper, one finds strong similarities on the personal level. Nat Cole was a tall, placid figure with a courteous manner, seldom moved to open anger yet basically a man of exceptional sensitivity. George T. Simon once made an observation about Cole that could as easily be applied today to Peterson: "You can hardly say success hit him suddenly. It had been coming to him for years and years; and through those years he remained the same sort of unspoiled person. Cocky he has never been, but on the other hand neither has he ever been afraid to stand up for what he believes is morally right. . . what he has done, he has always done with dignity, and with a calm serenity that can only come from deep and honest convictions."
Simon could have added that Nat, like Oscar, made friends wherever he went, through his work as an artist and through his deportment as a human being. The comparisons are many and various; foremost among them is the resemblance in their manner of playing and singing.
As pianists, the records through the years have shown, there is a common debt to the patriarchal genius of jazz piano, Art Tatum.
In 1956, when I asked a hundred leading jazz artists to select their favorite performers, both Cole and Peterson voted for Tatum; but interestingly, in the "New Star" category of the same poll, Nat voted for Oscar Peterson.
The pianistic resemblance stems from a combination of this mutual respect for Tatum and several other elements, among them an obvious admiration for Earl Hines. By the time Peterson was firmly established with the public south of the Canadian border, he had incorporated into his style all the elements known at that time as bop; but the roots that generated that phenomenally dynamic beat, as well as the grace that lent such ease to every ballad, could be found in the swing era.
What can you say about the vocal resemblance? When Peterson sang, a sound came out that happened, by sheer coincidence, to be almost indistinguishable from Nat Cole's. That his conception and phrasing was similar might have been expected; that the timbre itself bore such a close resemblance could be attributed only to the whims of fate.
Peterson, though, never could be convinced that the public would believe this. In the early 1950s he was persuaded to make a couple of vocal albums, but the similarity to Nat, or possibly the comments made to him about it, left him uncomfortable and unfulfilled. For ten years, those of us who admired Oscar as a singer would admonish him: "So you sound like Nat - is that a bad way to sound? As long as you're not self-consciously imitating, why not go on singing, and give us a taste of that trio setting that Nat isn't using any more?" As it turned out, nothing less than the tragedy of Nat's death could alter his convictions on this long-argued point.
Oscar now realized that Nat's style, his personality and individual technique both as pianist and singer, were values to be cherished and preserved rather than shunted aside and forgotten.
The use of songs associated with Cole offers an opportunity to study both the similarities and the differences between the two. In recreating these tunes, Oscar only used certain phrases or devices of Nat's when they had become so much a part of his musical education that it was second nature to him to sing them the way Nat did. In many instances, though, the tempos may be a little slower or faster, or the arrangement changed to some degree, because Oscar happened to feel it that way, and because this is not an album of vocal imitations. Just as Nat Cole's career comprised two main periods - the small combo days of the '40s and the orchestral era of the '50s and '60s - this album was recorded at two sessions representing those periods. For the first session, the flavor and texture of the 1940s was recaptured in the most logical manner, by reconstituting the piano-guitar-bass format. To bring this about, Oscar merely had to reorganize, for a few happy hours, the identical trio that was his own from 1953 until 1958: Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown. Though he has lived in Hollywood for several years and is busy in the studios, Ellis has kept in close touch with his old friends and sits in with the present trio whenever it happens to be in town.
Taping the seven trio tracks was an extraordinary assignment, one that was undertaken by the four participants - Oscar, Herb, Ray, and producer Jack Tracy - in a spirit of love and with more than a touch of nostalgia. The songs are standards associated with the first few years of Nat's recording career. "Sweet Lorraine" supposedly is the first song he ever sang. It was not new when Nat first recorded it in 1940, nor even when Joe Venuti recorded it in 1933. Written several years before Repeal by Cliff Burwell, then the pianist in Rudy Vallee's orchestra (lyrics were by Mitchell Parish, who was later to earn fame through "Star Dust"), it was ineradicably associated with the King Cole Trio from the moment that old Decca 78 single reached the public. This is one track on which Oscar hews closely to the original, undoubtedly because it was instinctive to him, and because too many deviations from the definitive treatment would sound like heresy.
There is also "Straighten Up and Fly Right", the Cole original that reminds us of the trio's partial identity as a vocal-unison novelty unit. That, of course, was the tune that catapulted Nat into national eminence as a best-seller, though in later years it would be the ballads that were to build and sustain his image. Immediately after cutting "Straighten Up" on that November day in 1943, the trio revived a tune that was then 15 years old, "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You", composed (and originally sung) by the late Don Redman.
The three other trio numbers sung here by Oscar were also standards when the Cole Trio cut them originally, but like every tune in this album, they needed only the Cole touch to give them a new life and a special, indelible association with him. Finally there is the only all-instrumental track, "Easy Listening Blues", based on a 1944 Cole Trio improvisation. That Peterson is a superb blues pianist as was Cole, and that Ellis is an earthy guitarist in the tradition of Cole's own Oscar Moore, can be discerned immediately in this soul-warming performance. The remaining five tracks are reminders of the stage at which King Cole, trio leader and pianist-vocalist, had evolved into Nat Cole, show business giant and favorite singer of just about all his contemporaries. "Calypso Blues", originally introduced in 1949 with a simple percussion background, is changed here to incorporate an orchestral setting, with Mel Lewis handling the bongos. "Orange Colored Sky" evokes memories of the 1950 session for which Nat was teamed with Stan Kenton's orchestra. "Unforgettable", which represented Nat's first official collaboration with Nelson Riddle, undergoes a metamorphosis in a more rhythmic treatment. (Any attempt to duplicate the original band arrangements was deliberately avoided.) "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street", with alto solo here by Phil Woods, was one of the countless examples of Nat's way with a rhythm song backed by big band. "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" displays Oscar in a relaxed moderate groove, with muted trumpet by Joe Newman, and with some of the walking supplied by that most dependable and adaptable of modern bassists, Richard Davis.
All five big-band tracks represent a highly successful collaboration between two men who have more than a name in common, Oscar Emmanuel Peterson and Emmanuel (Manny) Albam, a brilliant modern arranger. There is more to be heard in these twelve performances than the intrinsic validity of the music, the personal charm of Oscar's voice, the beauty of the reborn trio and the sympathetic settings of Albam's charts. There is throughout these sides the sense that this was a labor of love; that this album will touch the hearts of Maria and the children, of Carlos Gastel and Oscar Moore and Jack Leonard and all those who knew and loved Nat as a friend. They will hear more than a patch of time revisited. They will find in Oscar Peterson the voice and the touch of a man who understood the measure of Nat Cole's greatness, and in whom some of that same greatness lives on today.
Leonard Feather (from the original-LP liner notes)