Review By Brian Scott Lipton
In the music world, centennial tributes are starting to feel a lot like Oprah’s cars: “You would have been 100 this year, so you get one, you get one, you get one.” But it’s hard to argue that the late, great Nat “King” Cole isn’t deserving of this royal treatment, which is why performers as diverse as John Pizzarelli and Natalie Douglas are celebrating the iconic pianist, singer and occasional songwriter.
Unsurprisingly, Douglas’ show “Nat Sings Nat,” part of her monthly “Tributes” series at Birdland, did Cole true justice, superbly showcasing the eclectic variety of material that Cole managed to make his own during his too-short career. Indeed, Douglas handled a vast array of romantic ballads, up-tempo tunes and novelty numbers — many of which you’ve probably never heard before — with equal aplomb, thanks in no small part to the accompaniment of pianist Mark Hartman, bassist Jamie Mohamdein and guitarist Eli Katz Zoller.
In addition, as is also true of Douglas’ many “Tributes,” shows, this one contained just the right amount of biographical information about its subject.(For example, Douglas reminded us that Cole was forced to cancel his own popular TV show because no national corporation would sponsor it, as well as sharing stories of how his future neighbors in Los Angeles tried to prevent him from buying his house or how a group of white people in his home state of Alabama tried to kidnap him during his only concert there.) But, as with any cabaret show, the music is what counts most.
Douglas smartly started the 16-song set with a gorgeous rendition of one of Cole’s signature songs, the haunting “Nature Boy” (which songwriter Eden Ahbez reportedly brought to Cole backstage after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl) and ended with an equally joyous version of Bobby Troup’s irresistible “Route 66,” which Cole recorded three times in his career. Fortunately, though, there wasn’t a weak link in this musical chain, including a sultry “Gee Baby I Ain’t Good to You” to a sly “Straighten Up & Fly Right” to a stunningly beautiful “Mona Lisa.”
As the show progressed, it was wonderful to laugh along with Douglas and Hartman on the comic ditty “Harmony” (penned by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen) – where they purposely sang off-key — smile at the subtly sarcastic “Meet Me at No Special Place,” hold your breath as Douglas bravely essayed a six-language version of “L-O-V-E,” or try to hold back tears during Douglas’ magnificent takes on three gorgeous ballads: “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s,” (penned by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal as an “answer” to the much-better-known “One For My Baby”), “Somewhere Along the Way,” and, most especially, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s plaintive “September Song.”
To quote perhaps Cole’s best-known hit – and one which Douglas performed perfectly towards the end of the show – “Nat Sings Nat” was simply unforgettable.
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Alvey
“Nat Sings Nat” was performed at Birdland (315 West 44th) on Monday, April 29.