Graded on a Curve:
Nat King Cole,
Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943)

Nat King Cole’s enduring renown derives from his skill as a vocalist, but he’s also arguably the most underrated of jazz’ great pianists. The seven CDs or ten LPs comprising Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) do a stellar job of highlighting Cole’s keyboard prowess while documenting the growth of his superb trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince first, and later Johnny Miller. There are also brief visits from the great saxophonists Lester Young and Dexter Gordon and a ton of singing, though the approach lands solidly in a hot and often vocal group zone. It’s out November 1 through Resonance Records in partnership with the Nat King Cole estate.

Back in 1991, Mosaic Records issued The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, an exhaustive limited-edition set spread across 18 compact discs or 27 vinyl records. It was obviously produced for hardcore jazz nut collectors, the kind of listener who would know that Cole had worked extensively as a musician prior to his career-defining move to Capitol (an association he would maintain throughout his superstardom until the end of his life) but with very few commercial records detailing said period.

Hittin’ The Ramp features jukebox-only discs, private recordings, and a slew of radio transcriptions along with the handful of sessions that resulted in discs that were available for retail purchase, with the vast majority of the selections here officially released for the first time. There is a smidge of overlap with the Mosaic collection, but it doesn’t arrive until LP eight (or CD six) with “Vom, Vim, Veedle” commencing a smattering of cuts for the small Excelsior and Premier labels which were later purchased by Capitol and serve as the kickoff to the Mosaic set.

This repetition isn’t likely to bother owners of The Complete Capitol Recordings one bit, as it’s a miniscule percentage, specifically ten tracks out of Hittin’ The Ramp’s 183. Yes, that’s a lot of music, but slim compared to the behemoth decades-of-discovery scenario presented by Mosaic’s presentation of Capitol’s holdings, though in its vinyl incarnation Resonance’s achievement is also a limited edition.

Of course, at nearly eight and a half hours, Hittin’ The Ramp is unlikely to register as an exercise in brevity, and soaking up its entirety is a formidable (if simultaneously delightful) undertaking; I’ve done it exactly twice, which if far short of the familiarity required to form in-depth impressions on a deadline tied to release date, is enough to ascertain the worthiness of the whole and to rate it as one of the finest reissues of 2019.

And so, a few observations on the contents will fill out this review. For starters, Resonance’s track order, which begins with “Honey Hush,” the first in a handful of cuts for Decca from 1936 when Cole was just 17 and playing in the Chicago-based band of his brother Eddie, follows a chronological line, at least up until the final LP, which dips back for a different version of “Honey Hush” from that ’36 Decca session and sets in motion a record of alternate takes and additional readings of tunes that figure earlier in the set.

This magnifies the listenability of Hittin’ The Ramp as the tenth LP delivers a fine chronological distillation of the whole. Also worthy of note is the general high quality of the audio from the context of the source material, specifically 16-inch vinyl transcription platters sent to radio stations for airplay, or commercially released shellac discs, both from in the era prior to magnetic tape (additionally, the sets were mastered separately for vinyl first and then CD, making the latter something distinctly other than a loud-ass audio dump afterthought).

Along with maximum flow, the essential straight-line narrative allows for insight into Cole’s emergence as a powerhouse at the keyboard while servicing market demands, sometimes with women singers like Bonnie Lake, Juanelda Carter, Maxine Johnson, and Anita Boyer up front. In his excellent liner essay, Will Friedwald lists Earl “Fatha” Hines and Art Tatum as Cole’s spiritual antecedents on the piano, fitting him securely into the swing era but as a key figure in the move toward modernity; he’s also cited by Friedwald as an inspiration to Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, and George Shearing.

If modern, that’s a somewhat mainstream threesome of names, which underscores Cole’s own placement in the scene in the years covered here; he wasn’t edgy but was instead quite robust and could cook with versatility. For evidence, check out “Windy City Boogie Woogie.” As the discs progress, it becomes wonderfully clear that Cole, if perfectly situated to the jazz-pop norms of this timeframe, was nodding toward the future.

It’s a trait he shares with saxophonist Young, which makes Prez’s appearance here especially fitting and further illuminates the cuts featuring the youthful and Young-influenced tenor Gordon in a group featuring Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet and Clifford “Juicy” Owens on drums; interestingly, both sessions were produced by Norman Granz, soon of Jazz at the Philharmonic fame (and by extension a fruitful association with Cole-descendant Peterson)

Folks (like me) who prefer their jazz sans syllables might be thinking the prevalence of singing across these discs will diminish the whole, but the range on display, from Ink Spots-style group action (notably, everybody in Cole’s trio sings) to the aforementioned gals to the pianist dishing a nice blues with “That Ain’t Right,” helps to maintain a consistently high level of quality throughout.

Even more crucial is the solidity of the trio as they progress, with Red Callender briefly filling the bass vacancy of Prince prior to Miller stepping in (Callender was the bassist for the Young session and was also around for the Gordon date). Along the way, there were a couple of attempts to expand the trio with second guitar (okay) and drums (not so okay) but overall the piano, guitar and bass lineup was adhered to, with this still unique instrumental configuration helping to reinforce freshness across Hittin’ The Ramp’s duration.

A major component in the trio’s success was Moore’s adroitness on guitar. Heavily impacted by Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian, he was an exceptional technician (but with feeling) and a clear harbinger of jazz guitar glory to come. Moore’s departure from the group in September of 1947 established a far more difficult absence to fill; Nick Rossi’s liner essay here pays him well-deserved respect and with valuable historical illumination.

Released on the centennial of Cole’s birth, Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) offers further enthusiasms from Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Dick Hyman and others. If its length still seems daunting, the deep focus never once flirts with overkill. That’s a massive accomplishment, and it’s an utter cinch that any lover of pre-WWII American Popular Music will want to spend time getting familiar with its sustained brilliance.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Paul Mock

    This sounds like an incredible set. Cannot wait to hear it. Anything Matt Lutthans does sound-wise is of the finest quality.

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