While Resonance Records consistently wows us with ambitious archival releases, the label outdid itself with the new Nat King Cole compilation, Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936–1943). The scope of the project is beyond impressive: Celebrating Cole’s 100th birthday, the box set contains 183 cuts spread across seven CDs or ten LPs. The collection includes a booklet with photographs, liner notes, interviews, and a discography that does an excellent job of pinning down details about a wide mix of recording sessions.
As you’d expect, the set received the white-glove treatment. Matt Lutthans and Doug Pomeroy handled sound restoration. Mastered by Lutthans at Cohearant Audio, the 180-gram vinyl for Hittin’ the Ramp was pressed at RTI. Frequently, on the vinyl pressings I listened to, the surface noise that so often transfers over from a low-quality source recording was either nonexistent or so faint that I quickly tuned it out after the first few notes. The sound often surprised me with its clarity and presence, to the point where it gave me goosebumps. Some cuts contain surface noise significant enough to become a distraction, but the historical importance of these extremely rare recordings more than justifies their inclusion in the collection. Lutthans has made it clear that the same TLC that went into the vinyl pressing also applied to the compact discs, and he discusses this and other aspects of the project in the sidebar to this article.
Aside from some collaborations with Lionel Hampton, the collection contains every available recording Cole made as either a front man or a side man before signing with Capitol in 1943. The majority of the tracks were sourced from 16-inch transcription discs intended for radio play. Some recordings were meant for jukeboxes, and commercial releases include sessions for Mercury and Decca. The best possible source was always used for sound reproduction; for example, six Decca cuts are sourced from metal parts used to create shellac 78s, which sonically beats transferring the music from the actual disc. In true Resonance Records style, keen detective work combined with blind luck helped salvage rare recordings that could easily have become extinct. The last-minute discovery of a private disc that contained two takes of “The Romany Room Is Jumpin’” underscores the behind-the-scenes drama involved in Hittin’ the Ramp.
All the hard work paid off, as the set offers a crash course in early jazz and pop and the merging of those two styles. It would be hard to think of a better vehicle for exploring and integrating those styles than the King Cole Trio, who perform on the majority of the songs. During this period the band featured Cole on piano and vocals, Oscar Moore on guitar and vocals, and Wesley Prince on bass and vocals (that is, until Johnny Miller took over the bass duties late in 1942). Working without a drummer helped make the trio stand out by encouraging a light touch and a nimble, elastic approach. Cole’s original career goal was to be a jazz pianist, and his prowess on the keys is on full display on the instrumentals that are spread throughout the compilation. On performances like “Caravan,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Black Spider Stomp,” and “Jivin’ with the Notes,” Cole’s energetic playing and serpentine lines call to mind his primary inspiration, Earl Hines, and the intricate piano-guitar interplay between Cole and Oscar Moore is a delight. As versatile as the band leader, Moore calls to mind Charlie Christian at some points and Django Reinhardt at others—and the set offers some rare opportunities to hear Moore perform on acoustic guitar.
Although Cole was gifted as a pianist, it was inevitable that his velvet voice would play a dominant role in his career. Often his trio sang harmony vocals on playful pop songs packed with wordplay or added a hip twist, scat vocals included, on such standard fare as “Jingle Bells” and “Three Blind Mice.” Multiple versions of two songs we immediately associate with Cole, “Sweet Lorraine” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” appear on Hittin’ the Ramp, and love songs both tender and bittersweet were already working their way into his repertoire. Also, Cole killed it when it came time to sing the blues, as “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” and “That Ain’t Right” attest.
You’ll also hear selections where the King Cole Trio expands its lineup or acts in a supporting role for different vocalists. Along with shedding light on the trio’s abilities as sidemen, the performances with Pauline and her Perils, the Dreamers, Anita Boyer, Maxine Johnson, Bonnie Lake, and Juanelda Carter help provide a fuller picture of an era when recorded music was still in its infancy. The compilation also contains performances where Cole works outside of the trio, and with splendid results. It would be hard to top the contributions of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whose four appearances—“Indiana,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tea for Two,” and “Body and Soul”—are prime Prez, and fortunately everyone gets to stretch out on these 1942 performances, with each cut approaching or exceeding the five minute mark. Other highlights include the four selections with Dexter Gordon on tenor sax. This 1943 session predates Gordon’s first Blue Note LP by almost 20 years, and these tunes offer an opportunity to hear a future bebop legend when swing was king.
If you weren’t a fan of mid-century pop and jazz prior to unboxing Hittin’ the Ramp, you will be after listening to it. When recording these songs, the musicians had no idea these performances would survive into the next century or be neatly assembled in a single package that includes documentation of each session. The collection makes it clear that, while still in his late teens and early 20s, Nat King Cole was already in full command of his powers and playing an important role during a remarkably fertile period of music.
Q&A with Matt Lutthans
How did you make Hittin’ the Ramp sound as good as possible?
The best thing anybody can do is to track down original sources. In this case, everything was originally disc-based, these being roughly 80-year-old recordings that predate the advent of tape recording in the USA, so finding original discs was a challenge. I was thrilled to track down original source discs for nearly half of the tracks in the set, and to obtain very good existing transfers for nearly all of the remaining tracks. Then I just focused on overall tone along with basic cleanup and restoration (de-clicking, de-rumble, corrective phono EQ). A few tracks in poor shape required some heavy-duty cleanup (which I typically avoid), but for the vast majority, “less is more” served the music best.
I read that you used the same TLC for mastering the compact disc as you did for the vinyl and are pleased with the results. Would you care to expound upon that?
I was still receiving newly-made raw disc transfers on June 21, 2019, the Friday prior to cutting the LPs at Cohearent Audio, which commenced on the 24th. During that last week prior to cutting, I received something like 35 new transfers I had to evaluate, and if they were superior to the transfers I already had, they had to be cleaned up and prepped for inclusion in the set, replacing the former versions. I got the work done, and cut the LPs with no problem, and I think they turned out very well. Obviously, I could have just issued the LP cutting masters on CD, no problem, but since I had three additional weeks before the CD masters were due, I used that time to make little additional refinements that aren’t on the LP. I think the LPs are perhaps a little truer to what’s on the original disc recordings—warts and all—and the CDs are subtly more refined. (To be clear, I am talking about subtle little EQ or tick-removal differences.) CDs get looked down upon these days, largely because of the constant push to be louder. This CD set has wide-open dynamics and warm tone, and those who have come to avoid newer CDs because of things like brickwalling and harsh EQ need not avoid this set, which turned out beautifully.