‘Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943)’ by Nat King Cole Review: A Master of the Keys

Before he built a formidable career as a singer, Cole was a great jazz pianist; a new set reminds us of his virtuosity.



Michael Hepworth

By Martin Johnson
HOLLYWOOD (Perfect Music Today) 12/17/20/–Suave, debonair and almost impossibly refined, Nat King Cole possessed a voice to match his looks and demeanor; it was a warm, precise baritone, and those virtues made him one of the most popular and important singers in 20th-century music. Yet before he built a formidable career as a singer, Cole (1919-1965) was a great jazz pianist—a pivotal musician of his era. He is the bridge between such giants of the instrument as Earl “Fatha” Hines and Teddy Wilson and the postwar era’s Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal.

Cole’s piano virtuosity is a major feature of “Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943),” a new boxed set of seven compact discs or 10 LPs from Resonance Records. Most of the 183 tracks present Cole’s extraordinary trio featuring guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince or Johnny Miller, an ensemble that set the template for many of the drummer-free outfits that followed.

Cole, who dropped out of high school in his native Chicago, began his career early; while still a teenager he was leading his trio in Los Angeles. He often recorded for transcription services, companies that made recordings specifically for radio broadcast, and “Hittin’ the Ramp” is a comprehensive collection of these, many of which have been out of print for decades. The music is a far cry from the lush balladry of his signature hits “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa.” Instead, the trio performs jump blues and jivey shuffles with enthusiastic creativity. It’s easy to imagine Cole and his bandmates eagerly putting their spin on every song they can get their hands on. They perform popular songs of earlier eras like “Sheik of Araby” and “Swanee River,” emerging jazz classics like “Caravan” and “Body and Soul,” and even nursery rhymes like “Three Blind Mice.” Each tune is rearranged—and in some cases all but reinvented—boosted by virtuosic solos and exhilarating interplay. It is this spirit that makes the set enjoyable throughout; there’s an unmistakable sense of master musicians spreading their wings.

This collection is a showcase not only for Cole’s piano but for Moore’s guitar. Moore (1916-1981)—a brilliant musician who rarely worked in any other setting and retired from the business at an early age—contributes bluesy accents and biting solos to these tunes, often offsetting Cole’s droll brilliance. His style is also a link between early guitar greats like Eddie Durham, Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian and such later ones as Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Kenny Burrell. One of the essays in the 56-page booklet included in the set is a well-deserved appreciation of Moore.


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