A true best-of Nat "King" Cole collection would run at least six discs and about half that many styles. But this set, properly named The Greatest Hits, focuses on the more visible final stage of Coles career. After beginning as an influential if under-appreciated West Coast jazz pianist in the late 30s, Cole expanded into swinging jazz vocals in late 1940 with a Decca session that included a popular version of "Sweet Lorraine." Additional jazz and jazz-vocal sides as well as the widely loved Christmas pop sessions followed throughout the 40s. By the early 50s, the popularity of his vocal sides, with that smooth, enveloping, and masculine delivery, naturally led to more pop-oriented settings. This collection has a single track from 1946, another from 1954 (both in mono), with the remaining 20 songs coming from the more commercial 1958-63 period.
Many of the songs from these later sessions are merely vehicles for Coles voice, but his assured style and perfect delivery make the performances worthwhile. "Mona Lisa," with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra backing, is as good as pop will ever get. "Unforgettable," which opens the disc as a solo number and closes it as the 1991 Grammy-winning posthumous duet with daughter Natalie, is also pop perfection. On the other hand, "Straighten Up And Fly Right," "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)" and "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" give us a picture of Cole not just as a singer, but in his first setting, as the pianist of the prototypical piano/guitar/bass trio. This view offers a glimpse of just how much was lost when Cole shifted focus from player to singer. But the pop songs here, "Nature Boy," "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66," and "Walkin My Baby Back Home," among others, are well worth the admission price.
More pertinent to this review, the sound is also worth the premium price of this gold CD. Steve Hoffman at DCC continues to astound with his skill, not just recovering more detail from old master tapes, but unearthing more musical nuance as well. The string tone on the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, which backs Cole on about half the tracks, is far sweeter, more detailed and natural than on the 1994 standard-issue disc. Considering the age of the sources here, Hoffman has done an extraordinary job with very difficult material. In fact, "Orange Colored Sky" has dynamics that scare Ella the Rat Dog witless.
In all, The Greatest Hits is the perfect sampler of Coles final recordings. Pick it up if you want to hear the greatest hits, but dont forget to also look for the more jazz-oriented stuff. Jazz Encounters and The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio, both on Blue Note (!), or the Complete After Midnight Sessions from 1956 on Capitol offer accessible and affordable entry points into the jazz side of the great "King" Cole.
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