Dallas — The smoke is immediately recognizable even if you don’t know the song.
Nat “King” Cole (1919-1965) is revered as one of the great stylists of the American standard song even though his massive popularity during his lifetime is largely forgotten. But as Cole himself sang, “The song is ended/ but the melody lingers on.” He remains in people’s memories as the voice behind the “Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”), “Unforgettable” (re-popularized as a virtual duet with his late daughter, Natalie Cole, in 1991), “Mona Lisa” and a host of other familiar hits — a smooth and smoky voice that sounds like aged whiskey tastes, warming and comfortable.
His early death — from throat cancer in 1965 at the age of 45 — most likely cost him some of his universal popularity. The ’70s and ’80s were a time when Americans turned great singers into beloved icons. Singers like Sinatra and Bennett could simply appear and be cherished as institutions. Nat Cole’s absence lost him that crucial step of hagiography. Only recently have people connected his sound with his astonishing legacy.
Denzal Sinclaire, a JUNO nominee and one of North America’s most acclaimed jazz singers by his own right, has found himself in the position of being a latter-day champion for Nat Cole’s legacy. With Mr. Cole an influence for his entire life (“His music was all over my parents’ record collection. I couldn’t help but grow up loving it.”), Mr. Sinclaire embraced the challenge of reinterpreting Cole’s songbook not only in his own repertoire but also in a highly popular theatrical biography staged in the mid-2000s. He will bring Cole’s music to life again, along with a selection of his own standards, during a performance with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on March 16-18, under the musical direction of Jeff Tyzik.
Mr. Sinclaire was happy to talk about Nat Cole’s music during a recent interview but was anxious to point out that the repertoire was only a portion of the performance. “The Nat Cole music will be roughly half of the program. The other half will be more of the music that I would do as a “Denzal Sinclaire” show. That includes a variety of sounds and styles, including some cool and different arrangements of familiar songs.” He would not divulge exactly which songs were on the list in either of the sets but did let on that he will be playing both guitar and harmonica on several of the songs and had written some of the arrangements himself.
The connection between Messrs. Sinclaire and Cole starts with a similarity of both vocal range and innate style. “Nat Cole is definitely an influence on my singing,” Mr. Sinclaire says, “but even in the biography show I never tried to impersonate him. I always sing with a strong sense of “me” but I have tried to get aspects of his style into all my singing. Nat Cole has a simple melodic style without any ornateness. You won’t hear the big runs or embellishments in his songs. He sang with a kind of humility. And it is a very soothing voice. I have tried to capture his attitude of performing the songs to make both me and the audience feel happy.”
He also cited Cole’s love of singing in other languages. “Even if he had a terrible accent, he always seemed to love trying to sing them. He had entire Spanish language albums and sang in Italian, French and a whole range of others. That’s a thing I would like to bring into my own music more.”
When asked about Cole’s position in the pantheon of American singers, Mr. Sinclaire is emphatic. “He was and is still recognized at one of the greats. He probably is not considered first line right now, but he should be. And people forget that he was not just a great singer but a super jazz musician as well. In a lot of ways, he was a pioneer, bridging between jazz and pop and doing what he could to cross the color barrier of the time. He may have helped opened the door for the popularity of Brooke Benton, Johnny Mathis and a lot of others.”
What about singing such intimate music in an orchestra setting?
“I’ve sung in both small combo and with orchestra backing,” he says. “Both are equally exciting, but I really have come to love the thrill of the big orchestral sound. The way these songs are arranged and orchestrated leaves a lot of the intimacy intact. The orchestra can be restrained on the tender ballads and can really open on the big notes. And the way that the rhythm section is incorporated in this orchestra [the Dallas Symphony] is unique. Usually, they will put what is essentially a jazz combo in front of the orchestra, so there is almost a separation [between the vocals and the orchestral sound]. Here the rhythm is tucked into the orchestra. That brings my voice into the whole sound as well.”
When asked about the upcoming performances, Mr. Sinclaire’s response is simple. “I know that I’m going to have a good time. I hope that happiness and the music will sell itself.”
With Nat King Cole’s inimitable song book and the enthusiasm and skill of Denzal Sinclaire’s vocal stylings, I think the sale is guaranteed.