What’s on Your Playlist: Will Friedwald, Jordan Taylor, and Matthew Luthans

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Resonance Records is noted for its historical releases, and now the label has outdone itself with its most ambitious project to date: the seven-CD/10-LP Nat King Cole box set Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943). Producers Will Friedwald, Jordan Taylor, and Matthew Luthans picked ten of the project’s most notable tracks – quite a task, since the set contains nearly 200 pre-Capitol Records tracks by the great singer/pianist including some that have never been heard before. The first comprehensive collection of Cole’s early years produced in partnership with the Cole estate, Hittin’ the Ramp is available both on CD and LP and features an extensive booklet with interviews and statements by Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Freddy Cole, and more.

1. “Black Spider Stomp” (1939 Standard transcription)

An amazing instrumental that shows how great the tandem playing of Nat King Cole and his longstanding “partner in time,” guitarist Oscar Moore, had grown even as early as 1939. This also is possibly one of very first American recordings to reflect the influence of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. (Disc 7, Track 4)

2. “Sweet Lorraine” (1939 Standard transcription)

This is the earliest version of a tune that would become one of Cole’s all-time career signatures, a song which he learned from his original inspiration and mentor, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and which he recorded multiple times (not least for his classic 1956 album After Midnight). It’s fascinating to hear the embryonic version of a tune soon to become a King Cole classic, as well as what might be considered the earliest song he became known for as a vocalist. (Disc 7, Track 5)

3. “Early Morning Blues” (1940 Standard transcription)

A great illustration of how the Trio had evolved into something more like a jazz chamber music group, in the tradition of The Benny Goodman Trios and Quartets (or even, later on, The Modern Jazz Quartet), and also a stunning example of both Cole’s and Moore’s complete mastery of the blues item. It also showcases Nat both as an improvisor and a composer-arranger. Cole’s piano solo touches on elements of boogie woogie (something very rare in his music) and there are also outstanding bass breaks by the formidable Wesley Prince. (Disc 7, Track 6)

4. “Gone with the Draft” (1940 Standard transcription)

Cole dashed off this very basic novelty song in the immediate response to the passing of the national “draft” act in Fall of 1940, and it became, quite possibly, the first number by the Trio that might be described as a “hit.” The song attracted the attention of the black press, to the extent that it attracted the attention of Decca Records, who signed the Trio to a two-year contract mainly to get “Gone with the Draft.” (Disc 7, Track 7)

5. “What’cha Know Joe” (live radio aircheck, 1940)

Kudos to co-producer and engineer Matt Lutthans for this remarkable discovery, which is now believed to be the earliest live recording of Nat King Cole and the Trio that we know of. We don’t have any details on the background of this performance, but it’s a catchy novelty number written by trombonist Trummy Young, then with one of Nat’s favorite bands, Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra. The Trio also recorded a studio version of this with singer Anita Boyer, but this live version is one of the prize items of the new Resonance package. (Disc 4, Track 20)

6. “That Ain’t Right” (Decca 1941)

This was the second tune, after “Gone with the Draft,” to move the Trio up a rung on the ladder to stardom. Essentially, it’s a basic 12-bar blues with a stop-time bridge, although unlike most blues lyrics, the words to the first line do not repeat in the second. It’s a very funny set of romantic calamities that was so infectious that, two years after it was recorded, the track became a number one hit on the Billboard R&B chart (“The Harlem Hit Parade”). The song was also performed by Fats Waller and Ada Brown in the classic 1943 all-black musical epic Stormy Weather. (Disc 5, Track 19)

7. “Tea for Two” with Lester Young and Red Callender (1942 Norman Granz session)

One of the greatest jazz sessions in history, the meeting of the Prez and the King, derived from Nat’s friendship not only with tenor saxophone icon Lester Young but with Norman Granz, who later gave Cole full credit for helping launch his career as the greatest of all jazz impresarios. Even though Young enjoyed long term partnerships with two legendary pianists, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson, he and Cole were a perfect team. The 12 songs they recorded in the studio together (the remainder on a classic 1946 session) are milestones of American music. (Disc 6, Track 1)

8. “All for You” (1942 Excelsior session)

Excelsior Records was an independent label formed in 1942 as a means of getting around the musicians’ strike, then preventing all the major corporations from making records of any kind. The song, by the relatively unknown Robert Scherman, was among Nat’s first successful solo ballads. So much so, in fact, that a year later it was picked up Capitol Records and became Nat’s first release on that rapidly rising label as well as his first hit on the mainstream pop music chart. (Disc 6, Track 4)

9. “Hit that Jive, Jack” (1942 AFRS live performance)

Although originally written (over the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm”) by territorial bandleader and saxophonist Campbell Aurelius “Skeets” Tolbert, this song was one of the Trio’s perennials throughout the war years. This previously unissued radio performance from 1942 is already faster and more exciting than the original 1941 Decca studio recording, and is a good example of how the Trio was building to ever new heights of jazz virtuosity in the period leading up to their 1944 breakthrough. (Disc 7, Track 14)

10. “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1942 AFRS live performance)

Nat wrote this song, again based on “Rhythm” changes (as well as recurring iconographic figures from African American folklore) while the Trio was working in Omaha in early 1943.  Over the next year or so, he performed it frequently, including numerous radio shows, as well as in the Trio’s first film appearance, 1943’s “Here Comes Elmer.” Yet Nat waited until he had precisely the right moment to record it, and that was at the end of the year, when he and the Trio cut their first of many sessions for Capitol Record, and an amazing new era in one of the most remarkable careers in all of American music had begun. (Disc 6, Track 23)

Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) (Resonance Records) drops on November 1, 2019. www.resonancerecords.org

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