It was 1956, and Nat King Cole was ready to go back to his roots. Since the Nat King Cole Trio truly broke out in 1946 with their version of The Brown Dots song “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” Cole had gradually been doing less and less piano playing, instead focusing on his singing. Cole was widely regarded as an amazing piano player, counted among the greats of his era, but it was his smooth baritone that sold records.
After years of relying on an orchestra and doing minimal time on the piano bench, Nat King Cole was itching to prove that he still had it. Purists who had followed his career since the early days of the often-instrumental Nat King Cole Trio were clamoring for a return to the style of his first recordings. Cole was making a very comfortable living as a crooner with orchestral backing, but still had a strong affection for the piano. After Midnight is Nat King Cole scratching an itch.
Founding guitarist Oscar Moore had left Cole’s trio about a decade earlier, and original bassist Wesley Prince five years before that. For several years prior to After Midnight, the Nat King Cole Trio had been Nat King Cole and His Trio, a nod to the inclusion of bongo player Jack Costanzo. Rounding out the group from 1953 onward were the incredibly talented Charlie Harris (bass) and John Collins (guitar), the latter having previously played with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Artie Shaw, and many others.
After more than forty hits reaching the Top 20 on the Pop Charts, Nat King Cole had earned himself more than a little good will and creative influence. Capitol Records is often referred to as “The House That Nat Built,” so naturally, when Nat wanted to record a new studio album with his trio, he got his wish.
Nat King Cole and His Trio were joined for the sessions by drummer Lee Young and a small handful of other guests, including Willie Smith (alto saxophone), Harry Edison (trumpet), Juan Tizol (trombone), Stuff Smith (violin), and once again Jack Costanzo (bongos). The band recorded a total of seventeen different tracks during sessions from August into September of 1956, a dozen of them making the original versions of the album before the complete recordings were released some years later in 1987.
In addition to new songs that Nat King Cole had never recorded before, the group re-recorded with new arrangements songs they had been playing together for years, including “Sweet Lorraine,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” and “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” In some cases, Cole had recorded these songs a half dozen times or more, and in all three cases, these are truly the definitive versions of some of Nat and his trio’s best work.
Stylistically, After Midnight showcases the diversity of Cole’s repertoire and the versatility of his band as a whole. Previous albums and compilations showcasing Nat King Cole’s work have often stuck with a general theme, including collections of simply piano songs, or love ballads, or more melancholy tracks. Album opener “Just You, Just Me” swings with energy that sets a mood that is thematically similar to the next track, “Sweet Lorraine,” but has a celebratory, romantic vibe rather than the sort of coy boyishness of the first.
The album doesn’t stay in any one place for too long, and it is better for it. Songs like “Caravan” may not sound like typical Nat King Cole faire, but showcase Cole’s ability to tackle different styles with grace. Cole and his trio become only the second artists to record “You’re Lookin’ At Me,” a lovely, sad ballad about overconfidence leading to the proverbial “one who got away.”
Any single song from After Midnight could sound familiar to listeners for either earlier or later renditions by other artists, but Nat King Cole and His Trio show their excellence in their execution of a collection of songs that is, to put it simply, the gold standard in mixing jazz soloing with vocal jazz. Many artists can capably do one or the other, but few had the talent of Nat King Cole and his wonderful band to do both with equal perfection and wonderful balance. After Midnight is not only an excellent album in a vacuum; it serves as a bridge between two sides of jazz fandom that genuinely has something for everyone who loves the genre.
Nat King Cole recorded dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wonderful songs during his career, but After Midnight is almost certainly his best work in long form. In an era when singles were still king and LPs were mostly compilations of previous hits, After Midnight is a true studio album that sets the standard for what a jazz record should aspire to be.