The idea to celebrate Nat King Cole started in Cuba. Saxophonist David Murray was recording one of three albums he would make at the legendary Studio Egrem when he spotted a photo of Cole recording at Egrem with Cuban maestro Armando Romeu in pre-revolutionary Havana.
"Nat King Cole has always represented something different for me as an African-American," says Murray, who says he remembers watching reruns of Cole's short-lived national television series. "He was the first real dapper, debonair gentleman on TV that wasn't grinning and bucking his eyes back and having to see all the top of his teeth like Amos and Andy.
"I was only 7," he adds. "My parents were from the Church of God in Christ, and they didn't really like jazz. It was devil's music. But they liked Nat Cole. There was respect there."
David Murray's career has given him the chance to explore music from around the world. On Plays Nat King Cole En Español, out Oct. 11, he revists Latin classics through the filter of two Cole records, Cole Español and More Cole Español. These were not the strongest efforts from Nat King Cole, who had learned Spanish phonetically. Latin audiences heard his delivery as something comedic, but they gave Cole a break. He was singing their songs.
"My task was to listen to both of these albums," Murray says. "Some of the songs sound like the worst B-movie soundtrack in Hollywood from that time. The arrangers are not consistent. The strings are too syrupy, the trumpets too loud. Some of it is awful, to tell the truth. There was plenty to throw out."
It's what David Murray puts into these songs that makes them so compelling to hear anew. He completely reharmonized the original music. The new charts reveal how the arranger's art has changed since these records were made more than 50 years ago. David Murray's husky tone rides above it all — sometimes brusque, other times delicate. And he's in great company: Argentine tango singer Daniel Melingo, a European-based Cuban ensemble and a Portuguese string section all contribute in important ways.
"The first time we played this music, there were 4,000 people in Middelheim, Belgium," Murray says. "I saw 4,000 heads become 2,000. All of a sudden, people are getting closer to each other. Couples got together. It's no serious science in these songs. It's just popular music. I'm playing the melody. I'm phrasing. I've become the voice of Nat King Cole on my tenor saxophone."