This entry in mail-order firm Collectors' Choice Music's series of reissues of Nat King Cole albums pairs two instrumental collections he recorded in the 1950s. In its original form as a 10," eight-song LP, Penthouse Serenade, recorded on July 18, 1952, found Cole returning to the small-band format of his jazz playing days in an ensemble that featured him on piano, John Collins on guitar, Charles Harris on bass, and Bunny Shawker on drums (with Jack Costanzo joining in on bongos and conga on "Rose Room," "Once in a Blue Moon," and "Down by the Old Mill Stream"). Three years later, on July 14, 1955, Cole re-entered the studio to cut another four songs so that the album could be reissued as a 12-song, 12" LP. Two songs each were added to the ends of the two sides of the album.
This Live at the Circle Room date has been issued before, but the bonus material of the same band from a later date makes this an extra special set. For starters, the Circle Room, in the Hotel La Salle in Milwaukee, was the town's premier jazz spot in 1946. The first 17 tracks on this CD come from four performances between September 21 and 25 of that year. Cole, with Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller, had begin his singing career in earnest, and playing in front of a lounge crowd seemed like the most natural thing in the world for him. Indeed, as bottles click, and the periodic murmur of voices in the foreground appear in the mix, the listener will be transported into Cole's magical space. From Ellington's "C Jam Blues," to "I'm in the Mood for Love," "I'm Thru With Love," and "Sweet Georgia Brown," the Cole trio kicks it with grace and elegance.
Just One of Those Things is a theme album comparable to one of Frank Sinatra's uptempo swing albums of the same period (Come Fly with Me, etc.), and employs the same arranger/conductor, Billy May. Nat King Cole is a bit less effective than Sinatra at uptempo material; he tends to undersing these sprightly standards, and May saves his dramatic horn charts and percussion shots for moments when Cole is away from the microphone. Even so, by the fifth track, "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You," May has retreated to ballad time, and though his embellishments threaten to break out behind the singer, Cole gives an assured, unhurried performance…
Capitol Records took This Is Sinatra!, a compilation album, into the Top Ten in early 1957, which probably prompted the label to assemble a similar collection, This Is Nat "King" Cole, later in the year. Consisting of tracks not previously issued on a Cole LP, the disc contains seven recent Billboard singles chart entries among its 12 selections – "Too Young to Go Steady" (which reached number 21), "Forgive My Heart" (13), "Nothing Ever Changes My Love for You" (72), "To the Ends of the Earth" (25), "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life" (57), "Someone You Love" (13), and "Never Let Me Go" (79) – while an eighth song, "That's All," was the B-side of the 1953 Top 20 hit "Lover, Come Back to Me!" "Too Young to Go Steady," which peaked in April 1956, turned out to be all that was really heard of a stage musical intended for Broadway, Strip for Action, with songs by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson, which closed out of town. "I Just Found Out About Love" and "Love Me as Though There Were No Tomorrow," two more songs from that ill-fated show, are among the previously unheard tracks unearthed for this compilation.
Emerging as a great pop vocal stylist in 1954, Nat King Cole enjoyed a string of hit singles and albums thereon, but Unforgettable is perhaps the singer at his early peak. With romance as the watchword, Cole slides through some of his most familiar ballads, include the title selection, "Portrait of Jennie," "Mona Lisa," and "I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)." There are quite a few lesser known, but attractive songs, plus a small handful of standards ("What'll I Do?" is a keeper) that round out this interesting collection. The very artistic, near surreal three-dimensional white, charcoal black, and royal blue-hued front cover may be the best part of this reissue, as it reflects a time period defined by its simplicity and yet its increasingly technological, superimposed modernity.