September Song – Nat King Cole & the George Shearing Quintet

Ten years or so ago, I had a favourite compilation I’d made to listen to on my way home from the pub on chilly autumn nights. It made its way through lots of different moods, played fast and slow songs against each other, new songs against classics. I haven’t heard it for years and I’m not going to again, as it was on Minidisc, and not without a twinge of regret I threw most of those away a few weeks back when I was getting ready to move.

Sony’s Minidisc was a format that briefly seemed like it might be the future, but that never really caught on commercially (neither did its rival, Phillips’ Digital Compact Cassette, or DCC). It was left behind totally as the MP3 player – and more specifically the iPod – became the standard portable music device. But I made quite good use of my Minidisc player. As a musician, I found the fact that I could mix down demos made on a Portastudio to a device that didn’t add significantly more noise to be its best point, this being an era when CD burners were still very expensive (at least to a student) and not every home computer had a CDRW drive. But I also liked the small size of the player (smaller than a cassette walkman, and way smaller than a CD walkman) and the ease with which I could make compilations. I never owned a single pre-recorded MD, but copied a large portion of my CD collection on to Minidisc for listening to on the move.

Anyway, this compilation featured a run of melancholy, jazzy piano songs: What’s New? by Sinatra, I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good by Nat King Cole & George Shearing, I’m a Fool to Want You by Billie Holliday, then All Blues off Kind of Blue, then something by Tom Waits to aid the transition back to more modern music (probably Please Call Me, Baby off The Heart of Saturday Night). That little run was long enough to cover my journey home from the river, and the Sinatra and Nat King Cole tracks were the centrepiece of the sequence, two favourite songs off two favourite albums.

I Got it Bad is from Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, from 1962, which is classic almost from first note to last. On this record, Nat and Shearing take on September Song, Pick Yourself Up, I Got it Bad, Let There Be Love (that’s just tracks 1-4!), A Beautiful Friendship and Fly Me to the Moon, but this is not an exercise in cynical audience-pandering and easy song choices. The arrangements of these songs, by Ralph Carmichael and Shearing, are stellar and give all the room required to Cole’s voice, a glorious baritone, rich and velvet-smooth but with a trace of huskiness to it, one of the most immediately recognisable in the history of popular music.

As good as Cole is – as endlessly listenable as he is – for me the highlights of September Song, the opening track, are found in the arrangement and the piano playing of George Shearing, a Londoner, blind from birth, who moved to the States in the late 1940s and who died two years ago at 91. Shearing is famous for his ‘Shearing voicings’, a rhythmic-unison, block-chord technique, where he plays the melody with left and right hands, emphasising the left slightly, carrying the chord in the right hand underneath the top line, leaving the left free to play the melody line (and a chord-defining root note if necessary, when performing without a bass player).

Shearing did not invent this technique, but he made it his own (in much the same way Hendrix didn’t invent the E7#9, but if you say ‘Hendrix chord’, any guitarist who’s been playing more than five minutes will know what you mean), and it’s immediately in evidence on September Song, recurring again and again over the album, interspersed with the tinkling, high-register melodic runs (which seem to move around the stereo field, suggesting a very wide stereo miking of the piano,  but I may be imagining this) that along with the locked-hands Shearing voicings seem to define his piano style. There’s always something new to hear in Shearing’s playing of these songs, there’s always more spaces being filled with little details you never noticed before.

Shearing and his quintet (a big hand especially for Emil Richards on vibes and Shelly Manne on drums) are superb, but Carmichael’s string arrangements contribute an awful lot to the record’s success. It’s not much of an innovation to make an arrangement busier during choruses and middle eights, but Carmichael’s string lines during the ‘Oh, the days dwindle down’ section take the listener through increasingly troubled terrain, seeming to accelerate with the anxious chord changes, and Cole’s increasingly worried vocal, becoming almost horribly tense. And then we land suddenly back in the reassuring verse, the strings gone and the Shearing voicings return, while Cole reassures us that however few are the precious days that remain, he’ll spend them with us.

Have a great September, everyone!

Image

George Shearing (left), Nat Cole (right)

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