Centennial Celebration Review: Pioneering Pre-Fame Nat King Cole Piano Jazz Retrospective On Resonance Records Super Deluxe Boxed Vinyl, CD Sets

AR-NatKingColeBoxSetCover450.jpgSo, by now if you are reading this you probably know that acclaimed archival Jazz label Resonance Records has a new 10 (count 'em ten!) record boxed set out (seven on the CD version!) dedicated to the pre-fame years of legendary pianist, singer, arranger and performer Nat King Cole. 

On the surface, Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 Deluxe may seem extreme for even the hard core fan. But, it makes a lot of sense, especially given the depth and quality of the performances which helped cement Cole's legacy in the Jazz universe. It also makes a lot of sense given that 2019 is the 100th Anniversary of Cole's birth!

Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 Deluxe marks the first comprehensive collection of his early works -- some of which have appeared on lower quality releases over the years. It also has been created to ensure that Nat King Cole's estate receives due royalty compensation which probably didn't happen over the years for much of this music. Its should be noted that (as far as I can tell) this is distinctly different material than what Mosaic Records issued in the early 1990s on its 18-CD boxed set of the complete Capitol Records recordings by The Nat King Cole Trio.

AR-NatKingColePlaying450.jpgBefore he was a making hit records as smooth crooning pop singer for Capitol Records in the 1950s, Natalie Cole's Father was a respected and super-accomplished presence in the Jazz community, arguably the missing link between early Piano pioneers -- such as Earl "Fatha" Hines and Art Tatum -- and later sensations like Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner. Nat King Cole was the real deal when it came to blazing new paths in the then-rapidly evolving Jazz universe.

My first exposure to Nat King Cole's playing came via one of my biggest musical heroes, Les Paul. In the late 1970's, Verve Records re-issued the complete first 1944 superstar concert assembled by impresario (and Verve/Clef/Norgran/Pablo Records founder) Norman Granz: Jazz At The Philharmonic. That recording features Nat King Cole in a still-tremendous musical joust with Les Paul, who at that time was the emergent electric guitar wunderkind. Together, the two musicians legendarily deliver an at-times jaw-dropping cat-and-mouse musical challenge, especially on "Blues." Sadly, that 1944 performance is not included in this set as it is technically just outside the 1936-1943 scope of the collection (yet it is commonly available... click here to find it on CD via Amazon). Oddly enough, I did not find the recording up on Tidal or Qobuz but I did find a seemingly complete posting of the concert on YouTube (click here for it).

AR-NatKingColeVinyl450.jpgOn Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 Deluxe you get to hear Nat King Cole and his trio flower before your very ears and the result is educational, exciting and often exhilarating.

Since this is Audiophile Review I have to report that the sound quality of Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 Deluxe is quite wonderful overall, when considered in the context of the time and place they were made. Largely taken from previously commercially unreleased radio transcription discs, the fidelity on these Monaural recordings is crisp and quite high fidelity despite its age (and some inevitable-but-remarkably-low surface noise from the original disc sources). 

The 180-gram black vinyl pressings are thick, dark, well centered and most importantly dead quiet. Mastered at Cohearant Audio and pressed at RTI, you can rest easy that this set is of the very high quality as we have come to expect from Resonance Records. The package comes with a nice LP sized booklet replete with essays and commentary from Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett and many others. 

AR-NatKingColeTrioPlaying450.jpgSourced from the best available archival discs, kudos must go out to mastering engineer Matthew Lutthans who provides enlightening technical notes about the material on this set and the challenges in its creation. That said, it is quite remarkable how consistent the music sounds from track to track, even when the program might jump from a 16-inch radio transmission disc to a shellac record to a metal disc stamper. Clearly much attention to detail went into the making of this set! 

There is so much music on Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 Deluxe -- some 200 songs -- its a little hard to call out favorites. Some highlights which caught my ear initially include the 1941 recording of "Fudge Wudge" from a Standard Transcription session -- the recording quality is especially good here and there is a lovely presence to Nat King Cole's Piano and Oscar Moore's Electric Guitar.  The trio is smoking on "Ode To A Wild Clam" (and isn't that one of the best song titles ever?!).  And you'll get to hear sides cut with legends like Dexter Gordon and Lester Young!

AR-NatKingColeCD450.jpgIf I have any critique of this set it is very minor (and isn't really a critique at all... its more of a wish!). And this comes only because I have been spoiled of late reviewing super deluxe boxed sets from Germany's Bear Family. So, while it could easily be argued that Resonance Records put their strongest effort into the highest quality vinyl pressing and related archival audio restoration work -- and they clearly did!! -- it would have been nice (here comes the "wish" part, folks) if they included a hard cover book in the set instead of the simple printed paper booklet. Of course that would have probably added another $50 to $75 to the price of the set so I get why they likely didn't go down that path. But still, one can imagine something like that fitting neatly into the boxed set packaging alongside the 10 LPs. 

All in all, Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 Deluxe is a lovely package which will be a great holiday gift for the Jazz fan on your list! If you love Nat King Cole's playing and singing, or simply are a fan of great Jazz Piano music, this set is essential. 

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