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“When I Fall in Love: The Music of Nat King Cole,” a National Philharmonic concert produced by the American Pops Orchestra (APO), reminded audiences the music by Nat King Cole will live on forever.
Luke Frazier, APO’s founder and music director, assembled a talented group of artists who performed recognizable Cole favorites with new arrangements. Broadway actors and vocalists Chris Jackson and Aisha Jackson (no relation) breezed through hits like “Mona Lisa,” “Papa Loves Mambo,” “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and many others.
“I wanted to give a fresh spin on this music,” said Frazier, who has produced several APO specials on PBS. “I wanted to bring in artists I had worked with before and normally would not sing this repertoire. I knew they would knock it out of the park.”
Other featured artists for the concert were Guest Conductor Brittany Chanell Johnson, coordinator of the Musical Theatre BFA Program at Howard University. She was also a guest conductor on “Black Broadway: A Proud History, A Limitless Future,” an APO-produced program on PBS. Award-winning pianists Ray Wong and Steven Mann thrilled the audience with a technique called “four hands” piano. Sitting side-by-side at the piano, they played an epic reimaging of Cole’s “Too Young.” Wong played the higher notes on the right side of the piano, and Mann played the lower notes on the left. At times, their playing was so powerful that it sounded like there were more than two pairs of hands on one piano.
Embracing Nat King Cole’s Style
Between each song, Frazier shared how he began loving Cole’s singing. He was introduced to Cole through videos of his grandparents’ house parties from the 50s and early 60s. Frazier heard Cole’s songs in those home movies. As he grew older, moving to other cities until finally landing in Washington, D.C., Cole’s voice was a constant in Frazier’s soul.
“When my grandmother passed away, I got her record collection which was full of Nat King Cole records,” Frazier recalled.
Introducing Cole’s song “Route 66,” Frazier said that as a child, he remembered cities mentioned in the lyrics when reading a map or hearing a city name in a news story. Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Amarillo were some of the cities in that classic Cole hit. The arrangement, sung by Chris Jackson for the performance, had the audience get in the groove as they snapped their fingers. In contrast to many of the tunes he’s performed in Broadway productions such as “In the Heights,” and “Hamilton, Jackson’s portrayal of the Cole hit was smooth and cool.
Aisha Jackson showcased a beautiful voice and stage presence. Like Chris, the musical theater background of both vocalists was well used to keep the audience hanging onto every note. Aisha’s stage experience from “Frozen” and “Once Upon a One More Time” came into play when singing “Blame It on My Youth,” emoting naïve curiosity about falling in love.
Q&A Bonus Session
After the final song, with both Jacksons performing a duet of “L-O-V-E,” Frazier treated the audience to a question-and-answer session with his performers. It was an open discussion with audience members, from teens to long-time Cole fans, asking about technique, preparation and how each person in the ensemble felt about the program design.
Frazier was sincere about ensuring Cole’s music is brought to more audiences.
“I do believe Nat’s music is timeless,” Frazier said. “The only way it will remain timeless is to keep it alive.”
Learn more about the National Philharmonic at nationalphilharmonic.org Keep up with the American Pop Orchestra through the website at theamericanpops.org.