The Nat Cole Trio’s Last European Stand

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ZURICH 1950 / ASHBY: Nothing to Fret About. YOUMANS: Tea for Two. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. WHITING-MERCER: Too Marvelous for Words. COLE: Bop Kick. In the Cool of the Evening. Medley: HANDY: St. Louis Blues/JACKSON: Bluesology. COLE-COSTANZO: Go Bongo. LEWIS-HAMILTON: How High the Moon. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime. G & I GERSHWIN: Embraceable You. HUBBELL: Poor Butterfly. HYDE-HENRY: Little Girl. BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine. TROUP: Route 66 / Nat “King” Cole, pn/voc; Irving Ashby, gtr; Joe Comfort, bs; Jack Costanzo, bongos / TCB Montreaux Jazz 02432 (live: Zurich, October 19, 1950)

Next Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, I don’t think any major jazz figure was as beloved by the public as Nat “King” Cole. Even as a six-year-old, watching his nationally syndicated TV show, I was mesmerized by this charming, gentle and obviously hugely talented man, but even then, as much as I liked his singing, it was his piano playing that grabbed me and never let me go.

It wasn’t until I had grown up a bit that I learned that Cole was considered one of the most important and influential pianists in jazz history, the man who took the Earl Hines style, peppered it up with interesting dissonances and unusual rhythmic twists, and thus led to the development of bebop. All I knew was that every time he sat down at the piano and played, it was absolutely magical. Cole had a delicate touch, but more importantly, he had tremendous imagination and a good dose of wit. His musical humor sometimes consisted of just throwing snippets of Christmas tunes into the midst of a conventional song, or of playing a chord that didn’t quite fit the norm, or suddenly throwing in a full keyboard gliss when it was least expected, but over the entire course of his career he remained one of the most interesting and delightful of jazz tinklers, as we hep cats called them back then.

Jack the BellboyAnd of course, Cole was famous for having innovated the drummerless jazz combo, a move that initially hurt him until club owners realized how magnetic his musical personality was and how much people loved him. He later said, “I knew I was on the right track; it was everyone else who was wrong!” His first recordings were made for RCA Victor, his trio backing up Lionel Hampton on a couple of jazz classics, Jack the Bellboy and Central Avenue Breakdown. Ironically, Hampton played drums on that session, not vibes, so their recording debut had the drums he would never use in person.

By the time this marvelous, formerly unreleased session took place, his original bandmates—guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince—were long gone. Prince had been replaced by Johnny Miller in 1945, and later by Joe Comfort at the time of this live session (and later by Charlie Harris). Moore, who was probably the least known great guitarist in all of jazz, left near the end of 1947, to be replaced by Irving Ashby. As you can hear on the first track of his live session, Ashby was clearly a superb technician who fit into the group sound very well, but he couldn’t really touch Moore in terms of musical imagination. On the other hand, Comfort was very much Prince’s equal.

For the most part the sound quality of this live session is surprisingly good. You really get a “you are there” feeling from it, with just enough room resonance around the group to give their sound a nice sheen. And there is a surprise for those who don’t know much about the Nat Cole Trio’s later days: the addition of a drummer, in this case a bongo player, Jack Costanzo. So technically, this was no longer a Nat Cole Trio, but the Nat Cole Trio Plus One or Nat Cole and his Trio. The reason was that he really liked them from hearing the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton. Indeed, Costanzo, known affectionately as “Mr, Bongo” (and still alive, at this time of writing, at age 97!), was Kenton’s bongo player. Cole heard him playing live with Kenton and placed an ad in the paper asking the “bongo player with Stan Kenton” to call him to join the group. In a wonderful interview with Costanzo printed in the booklet, he states that he never appeared on ballads but Nat told him to “just move your hands as though you are playing and then they won’t know.” Another weird sidelight: a conga drum player had joined Stan Kenton two months before, and when he saw Nat’s ad in the paper he called him up and pretended to be Costanzo, who was vacationing in Florida at the time and didn’t see the ad. Fortunately, Costanzo’s brother was in Chicago at the time when Cole was playing there, went to see him, and informed him that he had the wrong drummer. He showed Nat a photo of Jack and said This is the guy you’re looking for! So that’s how Costanzo got the gig.

The piano at the Zurich nightclub from which this emanated (the Kongresshaus) is in tune but sounds a little “clangy” on some of the keys…a typical club piano. Fortunately, you only notice the flaws at full volume. When Nat plays softly, as he does much of the time, it’s unnoticeable. Th set surprisingly starts with Ashby and Comfort playing feature numbers, the guitarist dominating in his own Nothing to Fret About and the bassist sounding pretty good in Tea for Two. Cole has some real fun with the St, Louis Blues, purposely playing the first chorus in a corny, pre-1920s manner that has the audience laughing. But for the most part the trio is in a particularly innovative mood; nearly every solo, even Costanzo’s on Go Bongo, is interesting and inventive.

The trio does a marvelous version of Poor Butterfly, taken at a medium swing tempo and quite different from the ballad version for which they were more famous. Oddly, Costanzo doesn’t play on this one, but Nat takes the tune into some interesting harmonic territory and has a nice, playful chorus backing and interacting with Ashby. Costanzo also doesn’t appear on the uptempo Little Girl, so apparently the rule about Costanzo playing on faster numbers wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule.

Although Cole continued to perform and record with his trio for another six years, 1950 was the last year they were a real full-time performing group. The success of such solo vocal recordings as Mona Lisa and Unforgettable catapulted Nat to fame as a vocalist first and foremost, thus despite excursions back to the piano (and, on one memorable session with Billy May, electric organ), the trio pretty much disappeared as a regular group.

Thus what we have is a nice slide of history. To the best of my knowledge (and I’ve been wrong before), I don’t think there is any other complete live set by the Nat Cole Trio where Cole introduces his band members and tunes like this. Yes, there are radio transcription discs, but they’re not the same thing. And it’s really marvelous to hear an audience showering him with so much love and appreciation.

But such adulation was easy to show to Nat Cole. He was, after all, the King.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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