Nicolas Bearde has released his new album, I Remember You: The Music of Nat King Cole, to commemorate the legendary singer’s 100th birthday. I love Nat King Cole, and I own many of his albums, so I would imagine that a tribute to him from a less experienced artist might contain a modicum of impersonation. Most of us love Cole because of that impossibly rich yet almost casual tenor, but Nicolas Bearde has a much more respectful approach. He stays true to his own voice, one that reaches the high notes with ease without Cole’s trademark grain. He isn’t singing exactly like Nat, which would probably be a huge mistake, but he understands that the best way to pull off the perfect tribute is to sing those songs that have a deep and personal meaning to him.
Many years ago I reviewed the DCC reissue of Nat King Cole’s Love Is the Thing, so long ago that I didn’t even know who Steve Hoffman was at the time. (Remarkable, since I feel like I’ve known Hoffman forever.) I wrote: “Nat’s voice reminded me that the human body is basically hollow, and that it resonates like the body of a guitar or a violin. I could hear the chestiness in his voice, and I could hear him manipulate the air in his lungs to change the timbre of his voice.” For me that’s the essence of Cole’s voice. Nicolas Bearde also possesses plenty of power in his delivery while stay maintaining that serene flow, the same quality that makes Cole so memorable.
Nicolas Bearde has an interesting history–he was an actor for a while, and he honed his singing chops while he was in the military. He was born and raised in Nashville, a great place to be when you’re a musician, and he’s equally adept at both jazz and R&B. I can hear that R&B in his voice, which makes him particularly suited to many of Cole’s signature love songs such as “L-O-V-E” and “Tenderly.” But he also understands the playfulness of Cole, the liveliness of standards such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “The Rules of the Road.” There’s a classic beauty to Bearde’s voice, a purity, something that might have evolved from his time singing with Bobby McFerrin‘s a capella group Voicestra.
Clearly Nicolas Bearde has the kind of voice that doesn’t require much accompaniment, but he’s chosen to partner with sax player Eric Alexander on three of his songs. Most of the arrangements are centered around a piano quartet, played by a revolving cast that includes pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Alex Boneham and many others. The mood is intimate, which is very appropriate for these songs, and you’ll feel like you’re in a small club full of dark, romantic corners. I won’t go as far as to say that if you love Nat King Cole you’ll love this, but it’s certainly a well-executed tribute from a man with a large heart and a gorgeous voice–just like Cole.