The Complete Early Transcriptions of The King Cole Trio 1938 - 1941 (Vintage Jazz Classics VJC-1026/27/28/29) has wonderful, detailed liners which cover that era of the Trio's career. According to these notes, Nat formed the Trio in September 1937, as The King Cole Swingsters, to play a gig at the Swannee Inn on North LaBrea in Hollywood California that turned out to run six months.
The group consisted of himself on piano and lead vocal, Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. Nat also handled most of the arrangements and associated work, a job which was complicated by the fact that this was a rather unorthodox instrumentation and moreover was without a staple instrumental section, drums. Oscar Moore would become one of the most influential musicians in the early era of electric guitar, racking up numerous awards and a generation of attentive disciples on the instrument. But at the beginning here, Oscar is on an acoustic guitar.
What was this group like? Well, in 1937, Swing Was King. There was 'hot' swing playing all over, but jazz and popular song were not the separate entities they would evolve into by the 1950's. Most of the widely heard stuff was pop music featuring swing influences in music and scat vocal, generally falling into four types: ballads, blues (which often blended), novelty or dance (which often blended). To get a sense of the popular side of that scene one could give a listen to say, Judy Garland's earliest Decca singles. Or this set, because the instruments of the Trio, musically and vocally, were largely oriented toward delivering a flexible, bouncy and neatly organized form of novelty swing pop.
Nat's vocals were present from the beginning, but solos are rare. Excepting the occasional pure instrumental trip, the Trio consistently perform, in unison, the jaunty numbers replete with thirties scat that goes something like this:
And a polly wolly do dah day. So, the early Trio recordings tend to be more firmly dated than they'd be from say, 1943 on, by which time Trio vocalizing had been reduced to an occasional, differently styled feature. To put us back into perspective, let's say we just walked into the joint and are hearing The King Cole Swingsters. What we'd hear is timely, accessible, but at the same time, hip and extremely "neat." Rock solid musicianship plays a stripped-down framework of music, pared down to essential lines of pulsing rhythm and melody, distilling the tight integration of time with melody that typified the popular song of the day into a dark glass which the trio worked into bold, attractive art pieces. Lyric and all that jive are liberally printed around it, and in most vocalized tunes we have something of the song equivalent of a striking, custom-made deco cologne bottle. Solid jive, Jack.
Last year I'd suggested this set to a (serious) fan. I was shocked when they pointed out that it's not just a bit obscure, it's downright rare, and thanks to our ebay / Amazon market, if one is found it generally goes for well over $100. That's absurd, as there's no way this set is worth it. No slight to the set intended; it's a first class comp, all 4 CDs jam-packed, with amazing research, superb liners, and stunningly good sound quality for the sources involved. We could only wish many other sets were this well made. Historically it's a keeper. One is simply better off spending that dough on almost any other Trio comp, as the material is not yet up to that par here. There's some really bad stuff (owing to other vocalists the Trio accompanies) that's strictly of historic interests. One could pare it down to a nice single 12 track record, and still nothing is a stone-cold must-have.
The earliest recordings of the Trio are on this set, a date for Standard Transcriptions (for radio) in L.A., October 1938.
Most of the above are clearly 'swing novelties'; all of the above feature unison scat vocal routines all over 'em, except the last, which is purely instrumental. Guess which I like? There's not much of interest to me in any of the others. That's not to imply they weren't fine stuff at the time. It's still possible to tell how they would've sounded. Nobody walking into the joint with their ears on could have failed to be impressed by the combination of musicianship and highly developed distinctive style, while the jaunty novelty song / scat material was probably just assumed pleasant, 'jivey' and natural vehicles to enjoy it in, the occasional instrumental serving the side of rich delicious gravy.
But that's as good of an excuse as we need to segue into an observation about Nat's piano in the early phases. It's clear all over the place that Nat already had a striking and very remarkable command of the instrument and had developed his own voice from his various influences (stride, Earl Hines, etc). Over the succeeding few years, he would refine his technique to the distinctive chrome polish he would be famous for. All he lacks here is some burnishing to his already refined touch and being a bit more spare in choosing notes.
It's also worth noting that Oscar is still playing acoustic guitar here. To my ears Oscar's technique on acoustic is clearly influenced by Django, but that's hardly surprising. I'm not well versed on observations about his development, so I apologize if this is less than remarkable or even incorrect, but if it's of interest I'd like to make an armchair observation. Our 20/20 hindsight may lead us to missing the point that the way Oscar plays it is interesting precisely because of its familiarity. He's playing it less like the conventional acoustic style of the time, and more as he played electric. We might stretch this to say that rather than developing his style on the electric, Oscar already had developed a style and approach on acoustic, transferring that to electric when he found that the electric better suited what he was after.
Vocally Nat would become the greatest master of timing in jazz / pop vocal ever, according to Frank Sinatra (and I'm not about to argue the point). But here he's still learning; compared to his later mastery, he sometimes over-emphasizes the beat. He appears to have polished that by 1942. It hardly matters though since the material isn't vocally demanding, and he has more than what it takes to put this stuff over.
Coming in from later Trio perfection, the Trio here does sound like they're still working out the routines. They're sometimes struggling with all this pre-arranged unison scatting, one or another occasionally flubbing a syllable or word. Instrumentally they're very well together in even the most complex passages, but don't seem to have the confidence to spotlight their block chords and such passages. Changing styles were outdating the unison scatting by the mid-forties, but by then they'd refined their style to a fine mirror polish and could supplant the unison scat parts with their famous instrumental passages. The Trio was definitely in tune with the time, and time was on their side.
Cole buffs will of course note that we have the earliest and least known of a few recordings of the same number, Don't Blame Me. This version is also the only completely instrumental number in this session. It is interesting contrast, having a pluckier feel, or in the case of Nat's piano, a plunkier feel, but again shows they were already a formidable group as musicians and that their distinctive general approach was clearly well formed in their minds. And Oscar Moore is a frustrated man with an acoustic guitar.
Dark Rapture, a Benny Goodman tune also famously covered by Count Basie, is here your "typical" novel Trio vocal piece, but as such features an elaborate arrangement even by their standards. The booklet identifies "Oscar Moore or possibly Prince" as having a brief solo vocal refrain; IMH, it's Prince. By The River St. Marie is a bouncy lark, which I can identify as the same recording as track #18 on the imaginatively titled CD, Nat King Cole and The King Cole Trio (Savoy Jazz ZDS 1205), suggesting the date estimated on that CD was incorrect.
Talk about contrast. Novelties all the way to nursery rhymes and Chopsticks (no snobbery here!) become grist for the run of their mill just as surely as Duke Ellington's great Caravan.
Chopsticks. Oh chopsticks. Choppin' the sticks. Naturally opening lyrics about that good old hot tune Chopsticks brings to mind rhythm, which naturally brings in romance complete with a pause for the Trio to smack a kiss to the mics. Ta de a da da da is a natural segue from there, and what could be a better follow up that a nice intrumental break with Oscar, Nat and Wesley taking turns for about 5 seconds a piece. Nat's brief figures seem to be musing, what else, sonata elegance (yep, stickin' on Chopin, sly ol' King Cole). After some further recapitulations about those storied Chopsticks, hearts going "pop pop pop" and being as one, we're done with "choppin' the sticks" and nowhere near figuring out just how any of this ever wound up together in any song. All without actually playing Chopsticks.
Right, so now we're jivin', if also utterly mad, we're prepared to play Patty Cake, Patty Cake, Trio man. This one instantly grabs with a spare bass and guitar intro, and goes right into a disclaimer about their enduring fondness for the charm of nursery rhymes. One in particular. Little Boy Blue? Go on! Naw it's patty cake patty cake! And as they say, they swing it. Whereas the daffy and nonsensical Chopsticks can drive you nuts with little to show for it but self-inflicted hair removal and a bowl of chop seuy, Patty Cake slaps us with the inspired musicality and whimsy of the Trio closer to their best.
Three Blind Mice was also recorded for the King Cole For Kids 78rpm box set in 1947. It always puzzled and amused me that this song, replete with mutilating animals with a carving knife, survived as a kiddie ditty through the recent self-conciously Politically Correct times. The later version might be neater, but this one has an amusing twist in the story that one would be forgiven for expecting from 1968, not 1938.
Give the poor frustrated Oscar Moore an electric guitar and you'd have two instrumentals as dizzying as their later Trio classics on Capitol. Cole's approach to Caravan here has amazingly little similarity to his classic recording on the great After Midnight album. A few beats on piano to open and whoosh, we're surging along in one seriously bouncy but quirky trip. There are a few nods to a few bits Duke often did, but it's largely just Nat featured, alternating between busy and more spare key ticklin' as the Caravan progresses along its very brisk 2:15.
More ensemble and if anything more amazing is the Trio's all-instrumental arrangement of Gershwin's oft-covered 1929 song, Liza. It was clearly an early showpiece of theirs. Oscar isn't quite as frustrated, Wesley Prince reminds us that he was as great as any of the Trio's bassists, and Nat joins them in going to town in solid style.
The others aren't so much to comment on. So in other news, it is mentioned in the booklet that at this point our gang changed venues in November to 'Jim Otto's in Los Angeles', which they might as well have changed to their mailing address, since they stayed there playing nightly for months. Hopefully they also enjoyed a raise, since they were staying there under the moniker, King Cole and His Sepia Swingsters, the merry ol' souls. Fortunately, they were also enjoying feature on NBC Radio's 'Hollywood Radio City' (on every Monday at 5 p.m. PST), and doing so as King Cole and His Swing Trio. Wonder if any of those broadcasts survived. Imagine, sitting down in your living room or getting in your Studebaker, tuning your tube radio dial and dialing up the King Cole Trio live.