VARIOUS ARTISTS / “Nature Boy Mixtape”
Source: Breath of Life (BoL Mixtape - February 16, 2009)
This is a mixtape that has a twist in it’s history. Both the history of the song and the history of how the mixtape came to to be.
Coltrane was first. The initial impulse. I used to study his music intently like cramming for a test in the morning, sometimes I would stay up all night listening to him, being opened by him, made to think ideas I never thought of before. His sound was like some strange elixir.
Their fumes intoxicated me. Stripped old ideas off the walls of my mind, and there, behind the whitewash, underneath the piled-on bullshit, there, there was a dizzying panorama. Beautiful colors. Other worlds I didn’t know I knew about until listening to Trane taught me to see within the dark of myself.
The truth really does set you free. And what you do with that freedom, well, that’s up to you.
So when Trane came out with his version of “Nature Boy,” at first I was totally dumbfounded. I went back to Nat King Cole and then returned again to trying to hear Trane but still could not make a lick of sense out of where Trane was headed.
However, I knew it was Trane and knew that therefore there had to be something to it. Later a live Trane version came out (the same one that’s in the jukebox). That just made it more difficult.
And so initially I did what most of us do when we go to take a math test and everything looks like Greek, I just walked away from that shit and let it be. Wasn’t nothing I could do with that.
Except, the sound had shocked me so much, I did do something: I went back and dug Nat King Cole. Trane made me listen to Nat again and if nothing else, I had to give thanks for getting turned back on to Nat.
A couple years on, I was beginning to hear what was happening with Trane and by then, I had, of course, dug more of “Nature Boy.” I had spent a lot of time on the wrong path. I thought the music was supposed to give me answers, give me pleasure. As I grew, I realized that the real value of the music was that it unsettled you. We needed a new world and we wouldn’t create a new world if we were comfortable within the status quo, not to mention comfortable within the old ways.
You want a pearl, you got to irritate the oyster. Comfortable oysters don’t produce shit.
And that was the most profound beauty of Trane, even if you didn’t dig him, hearing him was such a thorough going shock to your system of references that he caused you to re-evaluate everything you did dig.
I started not to put the Trane track in the jukebox. Started to go easy on people. But then I came to my senses and realized, even if people don’t dig it, just hearing it will let them know how much there is out there besides the limited set of sounds that are usually filling our ears.
What was so hip about Trane is that he stretched us.
We still need stretching today.
In 1948, Nat King Cole recorded a song that had been left for him to consider. “Nature Boy” ended up holding down the number one spot on the charts for 18 weeks. Indeed that same year, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Dick Haymes also recorded versions of the song, all three of which also made the charts.
“Nature Boy” was written by eden ahbez, who is sometimes characterized as America’s first hippy. He was born Alexander Aberle in New York City around 1908.
He was a vegetarian and lived most of his life out of doors.
He died in 1995 after an accident in which he was hit by an automobile.
Nature Boy Mixtape Playlist
1. Nat King Cole – Nature Boy
Nat King Cole is it, whatever special quality one might mean when one says that so-and-so artist is “it” or has “it.” There is no more “it” to attain or possess beyond Nat King Cole.
Nat not only defined cool as a personal statement, he turned “cool” into that quintessential quality of hipness into a worldwide aspiration. After hearing Nat, everybody wanted to be hip, or at lest strive to be hipper than we were before experiencing Nat King Cole.
You can go from here to China, carouse in the Caribbean, take a siesta in South America, skip through Europe, safari down to Cape town, lay over for a minute in the Philippines, or wherever else on earth there is radio reception, and it is guaranteed if people there have listed to music on the airwaves, then they have heard and been influenced by Nat King Cole.
Where ever there are lovers, ultimately there will be a Nat King Cole song, and the greatest of these songs is “Nature Boy.” I can take or leave the accompaniment; what really matters is the quality of the voice and the phrasing. Super. Superb. Sublime. Or whatever other superlative one might use, all of that and more applies to what King Cole does with this one definitive song.
2. Maria Bethania – Que Falta Você Me Faz (out of print)
Brazilian pace setter Maria Bethania from Bahia and one of the founding creators of modern Brazilian music offers a Cole-esque moment accompanied only by guitar. Though she sings in Portuguese, she successfully mirrors Cole’s phrasing. It’s both beautiful and uncanny; a testament to her own high standards.
3. Jacky Terrasson - Alive
French pianist Terrasson strips the song beyond basics. It’s almost as if he were playing the silences as much as he’s playing the notes. During a couple of moments, it sounds like he surprises himself in terms of what he finds hidden in the melody. There are no words for the marvel of his musical musings.
4. Abbey Lincoln – A Turtle’s Dream
Few are the equal of Abbey Lincoln when it comes to articulating the spiritual qualities of a lyric. Abbey Lincoln is the fiercest tenderness you’ll ever experience. It is easy to dismiss the essential truth of a message such as “love and be loved in return”—after all so very, very few of us are ever successful at love, and perhaps the difficulty in giving and receiving love is the reason we often dismiss easy statements of “love” as trite sentimentality but, as is the case with beauty, the truth is: love is a rare thing. The fact that love is both rarely found and also difficult to attain does not diminish it’s value, indeed, rarity and difficulty prove love’s value. If love were not valuable (indeed, necessary), certainly we humans would have given up the search long, long time ago.
5. Ike Quebec – Heavy Soul
This is simply an old head blowing a chorus on his saxophone, breathing his life into a horn and letting the sound tell us something profound. There is no showy technical display but it takes a lifetime to achieve this level of articulation.
6. Phillippe Mall – Nature Boy (import only)
I believe he’s from Switzerland. I know he’s inspired by Trane. The whole album has that stamp.
The vocalist is Samira Mall-Darby, originally from South Carolina. Her sound is the sound of someone who is willing to leave their birth spot to find a place where their humanity can feel at home. Clearly her interpretation is about far more than personal satiation.
7. Kevin Mahogany – Another Time Another Place
Kevin Mahogany definitively demonstrates that being serious and swinging can go together. He’s positively gleeful in this romp through the changes. It’s though he’s got a “get out jail free” card in his back pocket and doesn’t have to pay attention to any of the street signs as he sails through town. He’s yielding nothing. Forget about stopping. From that opening four-note guitar riff, which Mahogany’s baritone mimics, it’s clear that we’re floating—I mean “soaring”—on some good vibes.
8. Claudia Acuña – Rhythm Of Life
Claudia comes to us from Chile. It’s taken her a minute but she is beginning to be widely recognized and respected as a jazz vocalist. While her Latin roots add spice, her skill is more than an exotic diversion. She brings a gravity to the proceedings so that even as we kick up our heels, we never forget that we are dealing with serious issues.
9. Alex Wilson – Inglaterra
Alex Wilson is British but don’t be fooled. Don’t sleep on this, Wilson is cutting some of the hottest contemporary salsa on the planet. He doesn’t have Latin roots (he’s from British and African parentage) but he’s intensely studied the intersections between jazz and salsa (both the Puerto Rican and the Cuban varieties). He’s paid dues in both jazz and salsa and his fusing of the two is uncanny in that he manages to merge different musical elements (e.g. soul, R&B, ragga, reggae) within the two major genres while remaining true to the root origins of each of the components. He’s known as a composer but it’s his arranging and leadership skills that set him apart from so many others who are trying to fuse desperate elements into a unified musical expression.
The lead vocalist on “Nature Boy” is Lauren Dalrymple. Part of Wilson’s success is his sagacity in choosing vocalists who have personality in terms of their personal sound but who also have the sensitivity to function within the Latin-oriented arrangement. You can hear the different elements but you never feel like it’s fighting the overall objective; putting it all together is a lot harder than they make it seem.
10. Nnenna Freelon – Better Than Anything
The more I listen to Ms. Freelon, the more I admire what I hear from her. Of the twelve versions on this mixtape, Nnenna’s is the only one that even attempts (and succeeds) in deepening the message. Simply switching gender-focus to “Nature Girl” is an obvious flip but Freelon goes full circle and sings about both boys and girls. Plus, the arrangement is hip, a different twist. Nnenna is consistent in turning the music inside out to get to deeper truths rather than simply settling for the surface statement. Bravo, my sister, bravo.
11. Johnny Hartman – For Trane
I started not to include Hartman once I decided on Mahogany, who was going to be dropped if I leaned toward Hartman, it’s always difficult when you’ve got to choose between twins. Sure they’re from different generations, but, man, here we have two crooners who swing like crazy and who each have a devil-may-care flair that is positively infectious. They make you feel good, force you to smile not by strong arm tactics or blustery shouting but rather their magic is subtle. The key is they are thoroughly enjoying themselves. Listen how Hartman talks to himself on the out chorus. You gotta love it.
12. Rene Marie – Live at Jazz Standard
Other than Trane, Rene Marie offers the most out vision of “Nature Boy.” Melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics are all subjected to alteration in the moment—she’s walking the tightrope with her eyes closed. And guess what? No hesitations, no slips, no backing up. Steady forward. This is jazz. Music improvised, totally. They not only create the path by traveling, they hold off identifying their destination until after they’ve arrived.
But it’s not a frivolous gambit, nor a risk for the hell of it, it’s life. It’s using the breath of now to create tomorrow rather than simply sitting back and waiting for tomorrow to happen or even vainly trying to preordain what tomorrow will be.
If you listen closely you can hear them listening to each other, commenting on what happens. Rene urges on the bass player, laughs in admiration with the drummer, verbally amens the pianist. The band line up is: John Toomey – piano, Elias Bailey – bass, and Howard Curtis – drums. This is the depth of interaction that uplifts me to the highest. When people ask why I like jazz so much, this is one of the reasons.
You never know what you will get until it’s over and the music has become you and you have become the music. Fools try to change lead into gold. Musicians change life into music, thereby immeasurably enriching us all.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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