In March 2019, the music world celebrates the centennial of the birth of noted singer, songwriter, pianist, and Civil Rights activist Nat King Cole (March 17, 1919 to February 15, 1965), and the matchless New York Pops, under canny Music Director Steven Reineke’s baton, devoted its February 8 concert, at Carnegie Hall. to investigating the many American Songbook classics that Cole illuminated. Assisting and making Pops debuts, in this evening billed as “Unforgettable: Celebrating Nat King Cole and Friends,” were accomplished young singers Nikki Renée Daniels, the Clara of Broadway’s “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” and Ryan Shaw.
Reineke and the Pops set the tone with Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” as the program’s lively overture. Shaw shared the tale of the buzzard and the monkey in his coolly swinging “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” Cole and Irving Mills’ song, inspired by a sermon delivered by Cole’s Baptist minister father, and followed it with a simple and haunting “Nature Boy,” by Eden Ahbez.
Daniels limned a surprise, surprising love, lyrically and with drive, in Milton DeLugg and Willie Stein’s “Orange Colored Sky.” She offered a luminous “Embraceable You,” by George and Ira Gershwin, with warmth, in Nelson Riddle’s arrangement for Ella Fitzgerald, a frequent guest on Cole’s short-lived television show, and subtly ornamented the reprise of the final verse. After the Pops’ romantic “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” in Riddle’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s love song, Daniels contrasted the unreal and real in a hot “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, and Billy Rose.
Daniels and Shaw showed that they were on the same wavelength with a gently swinging “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” by Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk, and a starry-eyed and touching “When I Fall in Love,” by Victor Young and Edward Heyman. Shaw continued with a bubbly, jazzy “Just in Time,” by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, from “Bells Are Ringing.”
The Pops took us on a journey along Route 66, with Riddle’s bustling theme from television’s “Route 66,” and with Shaw, let us know that you can “(Get your kicks on) Route 66,” in Bobby Troup’s song, with Lee Musiker playing the piano solo, as Nat King Cole had. Shaw urged optimist in the face of adversity in “Smile,” Charlie Chaplin’s song, with John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, in a new arrangement by Adam Podd. In his edition of Victor Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer’s “Tangerine,” Musiker and some of his Pops colleagues recreated the Nat King Cole Trio’s version of the song. Daniels and Musiker collaborated on a melancholy “What’ll I Do,” by Irving Berlin, with the singer’s tone at once dulcet and tangy.
Shaw’s “Just One of Those Things” sizzled, in Billy May’s arrangement of Porter’s look at a whimsical and scintillating affair. Daniels treated us to an upbeat rendition of Ahlert and Joe Young’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” which Fat Waller had popularized, and a bouncy “Avalon,” by Vincent Rose, Al Jolson, and B.G. DeSylva.
The Pops covered a wealth of favorite songs in its Nat King Cole Tribute Medley, arranged and orchestrated by Matt Podd, Adam Podd’s brother, and these were “Mona Lisa,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” an out-of-season but always timely “Christmas Song,” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer.”
Daniels and Shaw joined voices for an affectionate “Unforgettable,” Cole’s greatest hit, by Irving Gordon, and closed with a snappy and rhapsodic pairing of Broadway’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” from Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon,” and “This Can’t Be Love,” from Rodgers and Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse.” The encore was an audience sing-along with Bert Kaempfert and Milt Gabler’s song for Nat King Cole “L-O-V-E.”
On March 15, at Carnegie Hall, the Pops probes music for the Silver Screen in “Movie Mixtape,” with guests Mykal Kilgore, Storm Large, Ashley Park, and Ryan Silverman. The “36th Birthday Gala: Hat Full of Stars,” on April 29, will honor Cyndi Lauper. Jeremy Jordan will be the featured guest on opening night of the Pops’ 2019-20 season, singing music from Broadway and beyond, on October 18. For further information, visit www.nypops.org