Some smart folks insist Nat King Cole doesn’t get enough credit for his vital and historical role in Jazz trio piano playing. Hell, I’ve often said it. In point of fact, it’s been said so often that it isn’t true. We should qualify as such: Nat King Cole gets plenty of credit as the revolutionary pianist who gets no credit. He’s like the underrated ball player who keeps getting called the underrated ball player and has his face plastered on Time as well as Sports Illustrated. We might even call such a ball player: “the most overrated underrated ball player.” As for Cole, he is not underrated, and he did far more than pave the way for Jazz trios and small forces (though paving the way for smaller ensembles is a good enough thing considering post-war music union strikes and the rise of the crooner which made big bands expensive and anachronistic). Cole, besides making the small jazz combo viable (then becoming a crooner in the post-big band era himself) presages as much of the bebop style as exemplified by Monk as Lester Young presages Charlie Parker and bebop. Here’s some tiddy biddies on the matter:
1. Unlike those who went before him (and after him), Cole did not seek to make his instrument or his voice imitative of the other. Satch sounds like his horn. Almost all the singers who were players have a sympatico between their voice and their instruments–not Cole. Cole’s piano style is surprisingly and beautifully abrasive–far more percussive than melodic, far more angular, lean, clean, and with hardly a rubato or damper pedal heavy romanticism to be had–the opposite of his voice. The closest his voice and piano style come is on “Route 66.” Otherwise, it’s like Cole the singer and Cole the pianist inhabit totally different spheres.
2. Though Cole knew stride and boogie techniques better than most, he does not play his solid percussive piano along those traditional lines, but has his own sort of “Swing.” His left on ” Somebody Loves me” with lester Young affords a good example of this: though he is playing stride with an occasional boogie passacaglia, he does something in right/left hand co-ordination that sounds a hell of a lot like Monk–odd but inevitable dissonances, quirky “allusions” to stride, stomp and boogie rather than actual adherence to them (Cole, like a good postmodernist, knows how to quote the tradition without getting trapped in it). Like Monk, he is referencing, tweaking, and parodying the entire jazz piano cannon (and blowing it up at the same time)–and in the space of a single number! After hearing him play with Lester and Buddy Rich, I went back to other Cole piano bits, and found out it wasn’t a fluke. His left hand work was already free from the limits of stride and boogie and swing (before the boppers and Parker), but it is also free of the chord clusters and chunks of future post-swing players, and he is doing intervals of 2nd’s at times–something Monk was given credit for innovating. Amazing. As for his right hand, it never tries to impress, but has what I call “bubbling bel-canto.” A sort of singing tone that bubbles, and perks, and moves like brook water–swift, effortless, and with neither loyalty nor slavishness to the melody. His right hand can be leggiero while his left is staccato–more water freedom, than breezy freedom. Cole can flow more than swing, and flow is the greater attribute. Amen.
So I have come full circle: Cole does not get enough credit for his piano playing, but then again, how do you give genius enough credit?