Only one hitch: a slew of Italian-American crooners were intent on cornering that same market. So what if Cole’s natural dignity and reserve made Sinatra and Dean Martin and Al Martino look positively sleazy? As the 50s slid into the 60s, sleaziness ruled. The cocktail-lounge sophistication of Cole seemed less and less relevant in an age of tiki bars and cheap motels.
And having long ago crossed-over from being defined as a black artist, in the late 50s the compromises Cole had to make began to cast him as an Uncle Tom. Ray Charles was nipping at his heels with an aggressively sexy R&B sound that the gentlemanly Cole could never match, and Sam Cooke was taking his gospel-tinged sound to soul-music success. How could a “safe” Negro in a tuxedo at a grand piano compete with that? Can anyone blame him for jumping on a catchy novelty hit like “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer”? Really, it's a wonder Cole succeeded at all.
Half a century later, the Collectors’ Choice discs (nine of them have been released so far, with more promised next spring) give us a chance to appreciate Cole’s artistry anew. It’s like a breath of fresh air. His well-known hit albums like For Two in Love and Let’s Face the Music are here in their entirety—even better, packaged in two-for-one formats (an incredible deal). But nagging curiosity drove me straight toward two discs that reveal Cole hanging onto his jazz roots.
Penthouse Serenade/The Piano Style of Nat King Cole pairs on one CD two instrumental albums, released in 1955 and 1956. By then, Cole had had so many hits as a vocalist, he never needed to tickle the ivories again. And yet he felt compelled to do so, not once but twice.
With no vocals at all, we get a rare chance to focus completely on Coles’ fluid, graceful piano style. His debt to his mentor Earl Hines shows clearly, the stride-like right hand pronouncing the through-line of melody, the left hand decorating with flourishes and surging glissandos. The same intelligence that made Cole a superb vocal interpreter translates to these instrumental tracks, ranging from emotive ballads like “Laura” or “If I Should Lose You” to witty up-tempo songs like “Little Girl” or “Down By The Old Mill Stream.” The dramatic pauses, the throwaway grace notes – each song has a scrupulously crafted arc that seems inevitable and perfect.