A Tribute to Nat King Cole, Essay Example
I recently attended a jazz concert at Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. The concert was performed on November 02, 2012 at 8:00 PM and featured the famous blues and jazz performer George Benson, along with Freddy Cole and the University of Miami Frost School Of Music Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. The concert featured interpretations of classic songs by Nat King Cole. The arrangements of the songs and the concert program were made as a tribute to Cole’s musical legacy. The concert was also a part of the “Jazz Roots” celebration and functioned as a “kick-off” to the fifth anniversary of the Jazz Roots celebration. The venue where the concert was held was very distinguished and beautiful and helped to emphasize the importance of the music that was being played.
The most important aspect of the concert was that it was intended to celebrate Nat King Cole. As such, the concert experience was obviously designed, at least partially, to please those who had a deep familiarity with Cole’s musical works. As someone who was more or less unfamiliar with Nat king Cole’s music, I found the experience of the concert to be both educational and very entertaining. After the concert, I took a bit of time to do some research on both George Benson and Nat King Cole to hopefully expand on my experience of the concert. The musical background of George Benson and Nat King Cole are very important parts of the concert experience. My research of the performers did help me to fully appreciate what I felt and heard during the concert.
Nat King Cole is primarily celebrated as a distinctive vocalist. He was also an accomplished pianist and band-leader. Two of the most notable attributes about his singing are his use of phrasing and the unique tone of his voice. Many critics and fans have describes his voice as being “smoky” or “husky” and it is this quality that brings about a large degree of warmth in his recorded performances. Cole’s vocal style is widely known for making listeners feel relaxed and uplifted. The way that Cole sings also brings a special kind of clarity to the lyrics of a song. Where many vocalists seem to make it more difficult to follow the words of a song, Cole’s voice and singing style makes it easy to hear song-lyrics. His emotional but controlled delivery also heightens the meaning of song-lyrics. Closely associated to these qualities is the issue of Cole’s vocal phrasing. The way that a singer chooses to emphasize certain words, or even specific syllables, of a given lyric is important in creating a memorable vocal performance.
Another aspect to Cole’s legacy as a performer was his well-known ability to connect emotionally with a live audience. Obviously, this capacity is impossible to fully capture on a recording. However, the performance by George Benson, Freddy Cole, and the University of Miami Frost School Of Music Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra was designed to evoke this legendary power that most critics agree was an essential part of Nat King Cole’s musicianship. A certain degree of personal charisma is needed to evoke this feeling. George Benson, as the lead performer of the concert, was able to capture this feeling. The entire concert was designed to have the feeling of nostalgia and celebration, so that Benson’s role as a front-man for the orchestra was made a bit more immediate. The audience was prepared to be swept off their feet by both the musical selections and the emotionally charged tribute to Nat King Cole.
One of the key elements of Nat King Cole’s musical legacy is that he managed to create a bridge between pure jazz styles and pop-music. This fact is important because the tribute concert embraced both the jazz side of Cole’s music and the pop side of his music. George Benson is a well-known jazz and pop singer and guitarist in his own right. His experience as a performer and recording artist helped to make it possible for him to recreate the bridge between musical styles that is associated with Nat King Cole. The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra helped to make the music stand out as a lush and powerful tribute.
The makeup of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra is very interesting in that in addition to the traditional instruments that are used in a standard orchestra, the HMI orchestra uses additional instruments. These additional instruments are those which are commonly associated with jazz music. So, for example, the HMI orchestra uses percussion, strings, and brass as in a traditional orchestra. There is also the addition of trumpets and saxophones as well as guitar and drums. Because much of the music that is performed by the orchestra features non-traditional percussion, there are a number of “exotic” instruments to create Latin-themed rhythms and effects.
The idea of using such a diverse selection of instruments is to make it easier for the HMI orchestra to create music that crosses over from one style to another. Of course, fully appreciating this capacity of the orchestra is much easier for a listener who is familiar with the various styles of music that are part of any given program. That said, even a casual listener, such as myself, can approach an understanding of the way that the orchestra functions as a “melting pot” for various musical styles. In the case of the Nat King Cole tribute program, the orchestra was able to blend the jazz and popular styles of Cole’s signature music with the intricacy of orchestral music. The arrangements were adapted so that the best of each musical style was emphasized. The more complicated arrangements were handled by the traditional orchestra, while the jazz musicians and George Benson carried the weight of making the music accessible to a general audience.
George Benson’s background is perfectly suited to the program. Many people are probably familiar with his “hit” songs “On Broadway” and “Turn Your Love Around.” These popular songs more or less show how capable George Benson is as a pop-performer. However, both of these songs do feature Benson’s sophisticated guitar playing and singing. There is a distinctive connection between Benson’s vocal style and his guitar style which emphasizes – in both cases – his use of phrasing. This makes him quite suitable to perform Nat King Cole’s material with competence and excitement.
In addition to George Benson, the concert featured Freddie Cole, a world-renowned jazz pianist and younger brother of Nat King Cole. The piano playing and singing by Freddie Cole was an important part of the concert experience. He was featured during the opening numbers of the concert. Freddie Cole is well-known for adapting his brother’s songs to his own style of jazz playing and singing. Freddie Cole has been a longtime band-leader for a tri that is named after him. The Freddie Cole trio has toured around the world for many years interpreting and performing his brother’s songs.
With so many different musicians participating in the tribute concert, the overall impact was a bit overwhelming in terms of truly appreciating the talent and style of the performers. However, the concert was both invigorating and very skillfully performed. I found myself able to process the music a bit more fully after the concert was finished. As strange as it sounds, I kept thinking about the concert and the way that the various musicians performed together for many days after attending the event. Just after the concert ended I felt a little as though I’d had too much to eat, or like I’d been overhearing a complicated conversation between a large group of people. After some time away from the vent, I started to more fully appreciate the thought and care that went into the arrangements and performances.
The main impression that I had of the concert, and still have, is that it was a celebration of talent, not only in regard to Nat King Cole, but in regard to the orchestral musicians, the conductor, and the composers of the various songs, George Benson and Freddie Cole as well as the members of Cole’s trio. To my mind, before attending the concert, jazz music and orchestral music really held very little connection to one-another. After the performance, I started to think a bit differently and realized that an orchestra is fully capable of “swinging” and that jazz music, despite its reputation for incorporating a lot of improvisational material, was extremely complicated and studied. Both orchestral music and jazz demand an awful lot from musicians. The combination of the two seemed to pose a challenge to all of the musicians involved, but it was a challenge that they all seemed to relish.
The feeling that I had throughout most of the concert was that both the musicians and the audience were being swept away by the music. I don’t want to exaggerate the emotional impact of the music or the audience reaction, but the fact is, almost everyone in the audience seemed to be caught up in the moment. Of course, this didn’t happen right away, but gradually as the concert progressed. My own reactions were varied. At times I felt like the music was “over my head” and at other times, my feet were tapping and I felt the sensation of being lifted by the sounds coming from the band. There were also times that my attention seemed to lapse and I felt a bit bored by the performance. It wasn’t due to any specific song or player or arrangement but more with my own sense of fatigue and slight frustration at not being as familiar with the material as I would have liked to have been.
In a sensory way, the first and most immediate part of the concert that I felt I could connect with was George Benson’s guitar playing. I’m not sure if this is because my ears are more attuned to guitar-based music than other kinds of music or because George Benson’s phrasing was so pretty and easy to follow. He tended to play a lot of extended solos, particularly during the opening of certain numbers. It felt as though the guitar was a lead vocalist at times. I actually could hear the guitar “speaking” although I doubt I could translate out the actual words. This was the first strange sensation that happened for me during the concert. I don’t think that I’d ever been fully aware prior to attending the performance of how close to human speech the guitar was capable of sounding. I realized that making the guitar “talk” was one of George Benson’s particular strengths. That said, I was still awfully surprised at the wide range of voice-like phrases and sounds that Benson was able to articulate. Oddly enough, I also felt that the fluidity of Benson’s playing was exceptional. The notes seem to flow out, for the most part, like water.
Although I felt extremely responsive to George Benson’s guitar playing, I have to admit that his vocal performance was less impressive. It’s not that I felt he had a weak voice or that he was in any way unpleasant as a singer. It was simply that his voice seemed to be about two “levels” less powerful than his guitar playing. Certainly, compared to Nat King Cole, his voice was unexceptional. I think I started to become aware of this feeling when the band and orchestra started to play the song “Walking My Baby Back Home.” This was one of the Nat King Cole songs that I happened to be familiar with prior to the concert. I’d always liked the melody of the song and the simple lyric. I’d always felt that Cole’s rendition of the song seemed to savor every word of the lyric in just the same way that a young (or older) ;person who is in love savors every minute they have to spend with the person they are in love with. In fact, it was this connection between the lyric and Cole’s phrasing of the words that always moved me the most deeply.
Anyone who has been in love or in a deep infatuation with someone or even something knows how it feels to be with that person or thing. The feelings that come over you are almost electric. Nat King Cole’s original version of the song seemed to “freeze” this feeling into a recording in such a way that it almost felt as though the music was able to fully transmit the emotion of excitement and longing. There was also a sense of innocence and expectation in Cole’s version of the song. Benson’s version, unfortunately, failed to carry any of these feelings for me. Instead, he seemed to rush through the lyric and as a consequence the melody was a bit unsteady. Again, it was not the tone of Benson’s voice or even his emotional delivery, but the phrasing of the way he sang that caused me to feel a sense of disappointment. I realized even when hearing the song at the performance that it is impossible and probably not even desirable to create an exact copy of a pre-existing performance, especially by someone as great and influential as Nat King Cole.
What I came to understand was that Benson was actively trying to avoid “aping” Cole’s phrasing of the lyric. And as a consequence his choices for phrasing were second-best. The fact is that Nat King Cole’s original performance reflects the best choices for phrasing to make the lyric stand out and resonate emotionally with an audience. Strangely enough this realization helped me to understand both how important Cole was as a musician and how brave Benson was to stand in front of an audience and try to deliver a brilliant performance of a classic song without following directly in the footsteps of Nat King Cole. Also, I felt that my response to this song and Benson’s singing of it was shared by a lot of people in the audience. There was a distinct drop in the feeling of energy and enthusiasm in the concert hall after Benson stopped playing the guitar and sang with a microphone in his hand.
Benson was, however, an admirable “front man” for the band and orchestra. He approached his performance with a lot of energy, continued to speak to the audience between numbers, he even danced and shuffled around a bit on stage. He smiled and showed great enthusiasm for the songs. His mannerisms and facial expressions helped a lot to communicate his admiration for the material. I would say that his presence was charismatic. There was a big difference in the way he seemed when he was playing the guitar and when he was singing with only a microphone in hand. In the first case, he seemed very comfortable on stage, as though he was born to be three and his face and body-language seemed natural and buoyant as well as confident and graceful. As soon as he put his guitar down, he became a bit too flamboyant as though he was trying a little too hard to ensure that the audience was entertained.
Part of this feeling could have simply been that my own exposure to this kind of performance was very limited. Another aspect of why I might have felt a bit put-off by Benson’s stage presence, without the guitar, was because, as mentioned previously, I really enjoyed his playing and the tone of his guitar. My immediate opinion was that Benson was a far better guitar player than singer and that it was his guitar rather than his voice that most seemed to evoke the “smoky” sound of Nat King Cole’s famous voice. Additionally, the kind of crisp, simple phrasing that was used by Benson as a guitarist was almost completely absent from his vocal style. His singing seemed to blur one lyric into another. I also noticed that he awas glancing at a music stand while singing and it appeared he was reading the words from a sheet. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing so, but it seemed to inhibit the feeling that the music was coming out of him in a natural way.
When he played the guitar, I noticed he almost never had to look at the neck of the guitar to check his fingering or position. This fact, combined with his reading the lyrics from a sheet just left a permanent impression in my mind that he was primarily a guitarist and only secondarily a singer. I realize that such a statement is a fairly strong criticism of a performer who is famous all around the world and who has won a lot of awards including Grammys. However, I also feel that an original impression of a musician and the way that a singer relates to an audience can carry a profound impact on the way that the music is experienced. I want to make it clear that, despite my feeling that Benson was “inadequate” as a vocalist when compared to Nat King Cole, I was in no way turned-off from the performance. Instead I just began to see how the orchestra and instrumental musicians were able to flesh out some of the nuances and brilliance of the Nat King Cole version while the vocals were merely the icing on the cake.
My appreciation for the performance became stringer rather than weaker, despite my initial reservations about Benson’s voice. Most of the audience seemed to have a positive, if initially somewhat muted, reaction to Benson’s singing. As the performance went on I started to see that the tribute aspect of the concert was made even stronger by the fact that Benson conspicuously avoided trying to sound exactly like Nat King Cole. This was a celebration of the songs, the performers, and the musical style of “pop” jazz itself. One of the great things about experiencing the concert was the feeling of community that developed during the performance. I felt as though the audience at times was experiencing a collective emotional “roller coaster” and this held [particularly true for certain songs, most of all songs where the majority of the audience seemed familiar with the lyric.
For example, when Benson sang the song “Mona Lisa,” the orchestral arrangement was soaring and beautiful. The vocal delivery was a bit unsteady but there was so much enthusiasm for the song that it really didn’t matter very much. Again, the lyrics were a bit muddled but the emotional resonance of the song came through because of the lush arrangement and the passion of the performers. I had always liked the song “Mona Lisa” and I had always felt that the lyric was at least slightly “tongue in cheek” so that hearing the song performed with an orchestra exaggerated the quality of the song being “over the top.” I walked out of the concert hall actually humming this song. For whatever reason, this was the melody and lyric that stayed with me the longest. I’m not sure if it was due to the performance or the fact that the song is, on its own, a great combination of humor and love.
Of course one of the songs that everyone was waiting to hear was “Unforgettable.” This song, to my ear, has such a delicate melody and a haunting lyric that it requires special care to be played without sounding “sappy.” The feeling that is contained in the lyric is one of deep and abiding love. The arrangement that was used by the orchestra was fluid and yet seemed simple enough that the delicate melody was preserved. In my opinion, this was the song that showed Benson at his best as a vocalist. He was able to create a style of phrasing that respected the lyric while at the same time injecting a sense of wistfulness and regret. His demeanor during the song was free and easy. I felt that he stuck very close to the orchestra’s emotional expression during this song.
Benson’s version of “Unforgettable” was enough to redeem him as vocalist in my mind. I remember feeling as though it was quite powerful to experience his struggle to do so many Cole’s songs justice. He more than made up for any shortcomings with is performance of the signature song. Another important thing about the song “Unforgettable” to my mind was the fact that, at this point in the concert, I had almost forgotten that I was listening to a jazz program. Io found myself feeling more as though I was listening to a poop “crooner” or to a ballad singer. This was probably due to the fact that over the course of the performance the orchestra became featured more and more prominently.
In final analysis I would say that I enjoyed the concert a great deal and that experiencing it heightened my interest in and appreciation for jazz music. Most especially, the concert helped me to understand how brilliant Nat King Cole was as a singer and pianist. I also realized through attending the concert that great musicians such as Cole and Benson are uniquely “themselves” and that one great performer is not necessarily capable of handling another performer’s “gig.” That does not mean that I felt the tribute concert was a failure. In fact, it means that the tribute aspect of the concert was a great success because for all of the brilliance achieved by the performers, Cole’s unique legacy was heightened rather than diminished.
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