By Marilyn Lester
A huge attraction of Michael Feinstein’s Jazz & Popular Song series (now in its seventh consecutive year) is a combination of extraordinary talent, perfectly curated set lists and the engrossing and informative narrative delivered with considerable charm by Feinstein. And so a boffo beginning portended an evening of delights for The Unforgettable Nat King Cole. Musical Director and pianist, Tedd Firth led the 17-piece Tedd Firth Big Band with a few bars of a swinging “Orange Colored Sky” (Milton DeLugg/Willie Stein) playing Feinstein on and backing him in an intertwined “L-O-V-E” (Bert Kaempfert/Milt Gabler) and “Almost Like Being in Love” (Frederick Loewe/Alan Jay Lerner), before playing out with a few more bars of “orange.”
The musical history and short life of Nat “King” Cole (he died at age 45) is nothing less than fascinating. In the fifteen-plus years that he was a singer of popular songs, Cole had more hits than the legendary Frank Sinatra. Cole could sing anything, and it was he who made “Mona Lisa” (Ray Evans/Jay Livingston) an enormously popular chart-topper, after it had been rejected by several of his contemporaries, including Sinatra. Feinstein’s excellent interpretation of the tune was subdued, with the singer vocalizing the number as a poignant song of yearning. Later in the set, Feinstein switched it up with an up-beat, all-out modernized rendition of W.C. Handy’s innovative 1914 “St. Louis Blues,” making much of the syncopated rag style that Handy coupled to a pops melody and standard 12-bar blues.
Nat King Cole began as a jazz pianist, and a mightily gifted one at that. Singing came later. The jazz standard “Sweet Lorraine” (Cliff Burwell/Mitchell Parish) is the song that’s gone down in history as the number that kicked off Cole’s vocal career. This tune was played and sung by the debonair Loston Harris, who, like Cole is a piano man with the rare capacity to sing and play with equal excellence. Harris, with a honey baritone, demonstrated clean and creative technique on the keys, which perfectly matched precise vocal phrasing – delightful to experience on a buoyant “Just You, Just Me” (Raymond Klages/ Jesse Greer). In the realm of close your eyes and imagine, Canadian-based Denzal Sinclaire is a Cole voice double. The timbre is slightly different, but close enough, with Sinclaire applying his own interpretations to a smooth “When I Fall in Love” (Victor Young/Edward Heyman), and a slightly swinging “Ballerina” (Sidney Keith Russell/Carl Sigman), using the original Nelson Riddle charts. A real treat was Sinclaire’s haunting, seldom heard “The Ruby and the Pearl” (Ray Evans/Jay Livingston).
Nat King Cole voiced much of the Richard Whiting songbook. The Unforgettable Nat King Cole paid tribute to Whiting via Broadway and concert hall diva Carol Woods. Woods, who is currently starring in a one-woman Whiting show Ain’t We Got Fun, offered an easy and breezy “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze” (Richard Whiting/Haven Gillespie/Seymour Simons) with arrangements by her Musical Director, Hubert “Tex” Arnold. With Arnold’s arrangement orchestrated for big band, Woods knocked the beautiful love ballad “She’s Funny that Way” (Charles N. Daniels/Richard Whiting) out of the park. The musical and dramatic arc of this story-song was breathtakingly built by Woods. From a sweet introductory narrative, Woods skillfully moved to a contemplative and subtly shaded vocal start, to a full-out dramatic finish with great power, never losing sight of the personal nature and emotional impact of the lyrics. As a tribute to Natalie Cole, Nat’s vocalist daughter, who also passed from this world all too soon, Woods and Feinstein offered a heartfelt duet of “Unforgettable” (Irving Gordon).
Throughout the evening, the Tedd Firth Big Band delighted with clean precision and a very tight sound. Among the instrumental solos, notable turns were played by trumpeter Warren Vache, trombonist Art Baron and bassist Phil Palombi. The band swung behind a full cast wrap-up of “Route 66” (Bobby Troup), leaving no doubt why Nat King Cole, one of America’s most extraordinary stars, is truly unforgettable.
Michael Feinstein: The Unforgettable Nat King Cole, April 5 at 7 PM and April 6 at 7 PM and 9 PM
Jazz at Lincoln Center Appel Room, Broadway at 60th Street, 212-721-6500, www.jazz.org
Photos: Kathy Brown