Visitors of the Kentlands Mansion and Arts Barn in Gaithersburg currently have an opportunity to celebrate a famous phenomenal singer of the mid-twentieth century: the great Nat King Cole.
Cole was not only a suave romantic balladeer but also a jazz pianist of renown.
Both sides of Cole are on display in a enthralling performance put together by singer Don Dillingham, who sings staples of Cole’s repertoire in a one-man show, which is nonetheless very reliant on a live jazz backing by the five-piece North Metro Jazz Collective. In the words of one of Cole’s best remembered songs, the performance is “Unforgettable.”
Dillingham begins his tribute with “Welcome to the Club,” a vibrant Cole classic performed initially in front of the Count Basie Orchestra for his album of the same name, “Welcome to the Club.”
Hollingsworth does two important things with this number. First, Don welcomes the audience to his virtual Nat King Cole jazz club. Second, Dillingham gives notice that his performance will not merely be exclusively devoted to Cole’s hits, but will include rare material such as “Welcome to the Club.” This first piece has a piano solo by Don Wolcott.
Calling Cole the “Sultan of Swag,” Dillingham exhibits a strong stage presence as he begins a tribute to the original Nat King Cole Trio with “Got a Penny, Benny,” featuring a jazzy saxophone solo by Terry Koger. The band plays and Dillingham sings “Nature Boy,” beginning with a few classical touches in the opening and suddenly switching to a rhythmic bossa nova.
Some of the most substantial parts of the show are when Dillingham and the North Metro Jazz Collective eschew the exact Cole versions for new, somewhat different arrangements such as this.
Dillingham regales the audience with his stories, and there is even a quote by Cole in the playbill, to wit: “I’m an interpreter of stories. When I perform, it’s like sitting down at my piano and telling fairy stories.” Even if apocryphal, Dillingham notes stories behind the songs are essential. He shocks the audience with the anecdote that Cole actually did not like “Mona Lisa,” the song which became one of Cole’s signature hits! Here it is sung by Dillingham and played with a romantic guitar backing by Wolcott, who surprises with this talent after many pieces in which he imitates the King Cole style effectively on piano.
A mid-1950s Cole release called “After Midnight,” in which Nat augmented his jazz trio with instruments such as saxophone and trumpet, is returned to for many numbers, including “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head” and “You’re Looking at Me.” Both feature progressive sax solos by Koger, but not so progressive that they bring the listener out of the Nat King Cole era.
In the second part of the program, the band performs an instrumental version of “Orange Colored Sky.”
This instrumental jazz approach is appropriate, as this is the piece that Cole performed with the Stan Kenton Jazz Orchestra. Drummer Darrell Taylor takes the place of the brash brass from the original recording. Dillingham then imitates Cole’s voice well in a soulful rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” One of Nat King Cole’s wilder, more outré albums is “Wild in Love,” and Dillingham sings the title track from the collection, emulating Cole’s vocal rhythm well.
Cole took a dim view of rock-and-roll and would often perform a song live called “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock and Roll,” ending humorously with, “but I could if I wanted to!”
As if to prove the point, Cole released a rock-and-roll-style song called “Send for Me.” Dillingham performs this song with panache as jazz pianist Wolcott takes the occasion to sample the “serious” side of the Gershwin of “American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Performers and bands during the 1960s such as Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Petula Clark and, yes, even The Beatles would often record a few of their hits in German, Spanish and other languages.
Cole was no exception, singing in French, German and even Japanese. Cole made an entire album in Spanish called “Cole Español” and followed it up with two Spanish-language albums as a sequel. Dillingham culled from “Cole Español” the song “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” which he (and the audience!) sang it in Spanish.
“Walking my Baby Back Home” was sung as well as, for an encore, “When I Fall In Love.”
Needless to say, “Unforgettable” was represented in a highly effective performance, even paying tribute to Cole’s 1991 “virtual duel” with his daughter Natalie Cole. It was to Cole’s credit that, unlike many other famous singers of his day, he took on obscure songs which he felt deserved a second listen.
One of the aspects which makes this show such a compelling tribute is that Dillingham does the same by choosing challenging, obscure songs from the Cole oeuvre. This “Unforgettable” Nat King Cole tribute runs through Jan. 19 at the Kentland’s Mansion and Arts Barn. As Nat would say, “Welcome to the Club!”