Here's a parcel of rarities that chronicle the rise of Nathaniel Adams Cole, from his very first appearances on record as a pianist in his brother's swing sextet through a series of attempts to establish a distinctive style as vocalist and leader of his own trio. On July 28, 1936, Eddie Cole's Solid Swingers made four sides for Decca Records in Chicago. These are valuable not only on account of Nat King Cole, but also as fine examples of small-band swing from the mid-'30s. "Thunder" and "Stomping at the Panama" are energetic stomps. Nat's brother Eddie -- a proficient bassist -- sings his own composition, the bouncing "Honey Hush." There is a gorgeous tenor sax solo during the easygoing "Bedtime." Nat the 19-year-old pianist sounds at times like Earl "Fatha" Hines. It's a pity this band didn't wax another 20 sides. In 1937 Cole formed his first trio and began "rehearsing on the job at the public's expense," as Fats Waller would have said. Made in Hollywood on January 14, 1939, 12 recordings almost painfully illustrate the trio's search for a cohesive and possibly even dignified style. The first four numbers have lots of collective scat singing, and it is clear that this sort of group coordination would take a long time to perfect. "There's No Anesthetic for Love" is silly and surely would have turned into something more substantial if only Fats Waller had gotten his hands on it. "Let's Get Happy" is tight enough, but six other tracks feature whiny female vocalists. In a premonition of the act as it would sound by 1950, Cole sings "That Please Be Mineable Feeling" without anyone else's vocal backing. By February of 1940 this group had finally found its footing. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" -- or, as they sing it, "On the Side of the Street That's Sunny" -- is the first example on record of the mature, precise Nat King Cole Trio, augmented here with Lester Young's brother Lee at the drum kit. All of this would lead to Nat King Cole becoming a famous pop vocalist and nightclub personality. Although his amazing abilities earned him a place in the evolution of jazz piano somewhere between Earl Hines and Bud Powell, Cole would gradually sing more and play less until the point where most of his fans thought of him simply as a honey-voiced guy in a nice suit. Years later the great percussionist J.C. Heard would reflect upon the horror that jazz musicians felt when Cole all but abandoned the instrument. "Listen," said Heard, "when Nat Cole gave up playing piano, everybody got sick!"
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