Nat King Cole & His Trio: The Forgotten 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert

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Nat King Cole & His Trio: The Forgotten 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert. Hep Records CD 91.

Anyone who has ever bought an old or used recording--and I would guess that this includes virtually all ARSC members--has had this fantasy: what if it is the only known copy, or what if it is a completely unknown recording? Maybe I'll be the one to discover the Buddy Bolden cylinder, or maybe that unmarked box contains the missing 18 minutes from Nixon's Watergate tape. Most of us will never be part of such a discovery. Canadian record collector, and producer of thousands of CD reissues of historical recordings, David Lennick is one of the fortunate ones. According to an interview in the Toronto Star, (1) Lennick had purchased six 16-inch acetates (labeled Armed Forces Radio Service) several years ago in an online record auction without really knowing what they were. Later investigation proved them to be unique recordings, which subsequently led to this reissue under review.

Several aspects of this recording make it noteworthy in Nat King Cole's discography. It is the only known recording of Cole in Carnegie Hall, a place he played several times beginning in 1947. This recording also documents what was a recent change in Cole's personnel lineup. The Nat King Cole Trio had morphed into Nat King Cole and his Trio just a few months before this show with the addition of Latin percussionist Jack Costanzo. Cole discographer Klaus Teubig identifies this as the beginning of the Trio's third period, "Bop to Bongos." (2) In 1949, Cole was on the cusp of his rise to mega-stardom as a singer, and live concerts such as this give a glimpse into his broadening appeal. Indeed, as Will Friedwald observes in his informative liner notes, this program was attempting to appeal to three very different sets of his fans: his original base of black fans who appreciated his R&B roots, the jazz fans who were coming to appreciate his advanced piano stylings, and the new market of people who were discovering his silky smooth voice.

Cole was at this time one of Capitol's biggest stars. He had already had three significant hits for the label, "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (1943), "The Christmas Song" (1946), and "Nature Boy" (1947). Interestingly, none of these show up on this program. (In today's programming, it seems that any chance to play a Christmas song after Labor Day is fair game, and indeed Mel Torme included "The Christmas Song" in all of his later concerts, regardless the time of year.) The following year he would record what would become his biggest hit, "Mona Lisa". But these recordings by and large were Cole's vocals backed with more than just his trio, and apparently he did not pare down the arrangements to be able to perform them in the context of this kind of concert.

This particular concert was the end of a tour that paired Woody Herman's band (the second Herd) and Cole. In some respects this might seem an odd pairing, but Herman was at the time also a Capitol artist, and both shared the same agent, Carlos Gastel. Indeed it was Gastel who set up the tour, which began in February 1949, first in the Midwest, then a couple of dates in the east, including one at Carnegie Hall in February. …