Flowers for Nat: David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole En Espanol

By Daniel Garrett

David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole En Espanol
Arranged and Conducted by David Murray
Produced by Valerie Malot and David Murray
3D Family
Motema Music, 2011

On saxophonist David Murray’s album in tribute to the Spanish music recorded by the great American entertainer Nat “King” Cole, an evocation of an earlier time is inevitable, and some of the music has a nighttime quality, cool but sultry. Murray is joined by gifted instrumentalists and a rough, low-voiced singer, Daniel Melingo, who could be a Spanish Louis Armstrong or Paolo Conti. This is sophisticated music, melancholy and playful. If it is not surprising coming from David Murray, that is because Murray’s oeuvre is known for its bold and brilliant range: Murray has recorded more than one-hundred and fifty albums, of traditional and experimental music, American and international. He created the ten-piece David Murray Cuban Ensemble for the Cole tribute, and invited the Sinfonieta of Sines, with eleven members, to collaborate. The exuberant song “El Bodeguero,” more rough than smooth, yet breezy and suave, is full of horns and rhythm. A mystique, even drama, is created in “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” which opens with a heavy but open saxophone tone, conversational but not pretty—and the trumpet plays ever higher, amid strings and the singer’s Spanish narration. “Tres Palabras” has a moderate tempo, and is a bit of a slow dance, with a harmonic duet between saxophone and trumpet, and a piano in decorative attendance. What an interesting tribute this is—it has high regard for the more unique aspects of Nat King Cole’s legacy.

Nat King Cole. Louis Armstrong. Ethel Waters. Lena Horne. Diahann Carroll. Johnny Mathis. Nancy Wilson. Superb performers. Voice, sound, look, dress—impeccable, and impressive: the human presence at its most attractive. The Alabama-born singer and pianist Nat “King” Cole (March 17, 1919-February 15, 1965), the son of a pastor father and choir director mother, began to play piano as a boy but he became famous for his suave, soothing sung tones, for the romance in his voice. Cole loved jazz, and was admired by many jazz musicians for his piano technique, but the broad American public embraced him for songs such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Unforgettable.” Nat King Cole also sang the songs of Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and in 1958, Nat Cole gave his audience Cole Espanol, and in 1962 More Cole en Espanol. Nat King Cole’s daughter, the singer Natalie Cole, has helped to keep his name and work prominent, recording bestselling versions of some of his songs.

In the fast, string-laden “Piel Canela” on the David Murray Cuban Ensemble album, the saxophone serenades and struts. There is strong ensemble playing in the downbeat, sad “No Me Platiques,” in which the saxophone blares and also creates small, intricate patterns; and an emotional intensity emerges, with long, plaintive saxophone lines near the end. “Black Nat,” the one song David Murray wrote for the collection, mostly fits with the other music here, and has a lot of energy, though its wildness seems a bit beyond Cole’s customary cool control. There are nice piano runs in the spirited “Cachito,” and a contrast of rough singing voice and strings in “A Media Luz,” followed by “Aqui Se Habla En Amor.” As “El Choclo” has something of an East European sound, I would guess it’s a song from Argentina.

How much an artist or thinker can encompass says something about his spirit: and David Murray, a musician, composer, and band leader, encompasses a lot. The Oakland-born son of an organist mother, David Murray was influenced by the Underground Musicians Association, thanks to the Horace Tapscott Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, and Murray became part of the World Saxophone Quartet. David Murray has performed with many great musicians—Butch Morris, Don Pullen, Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, Anthony Davis, Steve Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, Jack DeJohnette, Randy Weston, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones among them. Murray long has been considered one of the great saxophone players of his time; and his taking on Nat King Cole, an artist and an entertainer, as a standard to be emulated is one more sign of his discerning and generous values.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.