Spare and tasteful as the Penthouse Serenade songs are, it takes a minute to adjust to the big-band treatments on the Piano Style of Nat King Cole half of the disc. Personally I prefer the stripped-down earlier album. Still, the strings-heavy Nelson Riddle arrangements add a dash of cocktail classiness to standards like “Takin’ A Chance On Love,” “April in Paris,” and a particularly sprightly “I Get A Kick Out Of You.”
It’s astonishing that, as late as 1959 and 1960—on the brink of the Motown and Beatles era—Cole was drawn back to a traditional big-band sound for Welcome To the Club and Tell Me All About Yourself. These are basically a walk through the back catalog of American standards, staying deliberately away from the done-to-death songs, which gives it a welcome freshness.
And what a showcase for Cole’s trademark vocal style—the way he lags just behind the rhythm, caresses phrase endings with a trill, rounds his vowels emphatically (his polished diction always read as pure class). Tracks like “The Blues Don’t Care,” “Mood Indigo,” and the rueful “Until The Real Thing Comes Along” and “My Life” are just plain revelations. Surprisingly, the sound is anything but dated — though no one today could release a song titled (honest) “You’ve Got The Indian Sign On Me.” And yet it too is such a delicious track, it’s my new guilty pleasure.
The first of these LPs, Welcome to the Club, was recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, though for obscure contractual reasons neither Basie nor Cole is on the piano. Tell Me All About Yourself was done with studio musicians, but it’s virtually the same sound. What’s important is the swinging tempos, the tight percussion, the joyful horns—no lush string sections, no Latin or country accents, nothing but traditional jazz behind one of the century’s great vocalists.
Diving into these four albums – these two CDs – makes it possible for me to hear Nat King Cole as if I had never heard him before. I’m falling in love with Cole on my own terms this time, and loving it.
And yes, all right, as Christmas draws nearer I’ll haul out The Christmas Album again. Traditions are traditions, after all. But now I've got some Nat King Cole champagne for New Year's Eve too.