Prolific saxophonist, composer, and arranger David Murray has made a number of tribute recordings during his career to jazz luminaries such as Albert Ayler and Don Pullen, among others. Nat King Cole may seem an unlikely choice initially, and it might never have happened if Murray had not been recording at Cuba's Studio Egrem and saw a photograph of Cole with Armando Romeu from a pre-revolution session. Cole recorded a pair of Latin-inspired records, Cole Español and More Cole Español, in 1958 and 1962 respectively -- one in Spanish and one in Portuguese (the singer spoke neither but learned standards and folk songs phonetically). The audiences these albums were directed at were already Cole fans, and while they weren't very good, they thought them amusing and flattering. Murray draws from these records here. His European-based ten-piece Cuban band and a string section toured these tunes before recording them. The band sessions took place in Buenos Aires with tango sensation Daniel Melingo contributing to four tracks. Murray added strings in Portugal, played by 11 members of Sinfonieta of Sines. Murray wrote gorgeous charts for these sessions. The string arrangements are alternately haunting, lively, and full of beautiful counterpoint and extended harmonies that contrast colorfully with the jazz band. His brass charts offer both stunning lyricism and elegance while the rhythm section pops. Murray's saxophone and bass clarinet become the voice of Cole. He hovers, soars, and gently swoops on these ten tunes -- check "El Bodequero," with its elegant swinging variation on the cha-cha. On "Piel Canela," he leads a swirl of string colors on a more standard version of the cha-cha's melody before stretching out in a hip, understated lyrical tenor solo that gets wonderfully knotty in its interplay with pianist Jose "Pepe" Rivero. On "No Me Platiques," Murray pulls all the variations of lyricism from his horn; old-school big breathy balladry and more angular phrases pour forth in tandem. Melingo's voice on "the single" "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" and "A Media Luz" is pure tango glory in its grainy, passionate immediacy, reined in just enough by the chart; Murray's deeply emotive bass clarinet is featured prominently as a second voice on the latter track. Plays Nat King Cole en Español is among the most imaginative and well-executed recordings in Murray's large catalog. He found something mercurial, graceful, and dignified in Cole's voice, and used it as inspiration to create a work that is respectful but utterly his own.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek