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Get To Know: The Cole Porter Songbook

Everybody loves Cole Porter. But most jazz musicians really love Cole Porter. Singers love his lyrics, which contain great wit, amazing rhymes and beautiful imagery. Instrumentalists love his elegant melodies and sophisticated song structures.

During the three decades of Porter's greatest productivity — the late 1920s through the late '50s — jazz musicians would latch on to the latest Porter songs from his Broadway shows or Hollywood musicals and turn them into jazz standards almost immediately. Jazz artists are still exploring Cole Porter today. And why not? Along with the songs represented in this list, some of his other works include "Begin the Beguine," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "You're the Top," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Easy to Love," "Miss Otis Regrets," "I've Got You Under My Skin"... and that's just scratching the surface of his amazing output.

As you listen to Cole Porter, and perhaps compare him to the other great Tin Pan Alley songwriters who were his contemporaries, remember that most of those songwriters worked in teams — Rodgers and Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, and Lerner and Loewe, to name a few. But Cole Porter did it all — words and music. And nobody did it better.

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Get To Know: The Cole Porter Songbook

Fred Astaire

During his career on Broadway and in films, Fred Astaire got to perform a lot of Cole Porter numbers. In fact, Astaire introduced "Night and Day" in a 1932 Broadway show called Gay Divorce. In the latter part of his life, Astaire revisited many of the songs he'd done on stage and screen. Instead of using an orchestra, though, Astaire decided to approach the material from a jazzier angle, so producer Norman Granz put together a band for him. And what a band: Oscar Peterson (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Flip Phillips (saxophone), Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Ray Brown (bass) and Alvin Stoller (drums). It's a wonderful song from an indispensable collection.

Ella Fitzgerald

Speaking of indispensable collections, Ella Fitzgerald's Cole Porter Songbooks should probably be in every library (personal or public) of American music. Fitzgerald's voice and Porter's music were made for each other. In this selection, Fitzgerald performs her version of "Let's Do It." It's a great example of how Porter's clever and playful lyrics could hint at a level of earthiness while remaining acceptable to those who chose to think that when Porter wrote the words, "Let's do it," he really did mean, "Let's fall in love." And maybe he did.

Aretha Franklin

Here's another example of how Porter's sophisticated songwriting could flirt with earthiness (to say nothing of illegality) and still come up with a song that would be accepted by the masses. This version of "Love for Sale" comes from Aretha Franklin's earliest attempts at reaching a secular audience. Before she became the Queen of Soul on the Atlantic label, she made some jazz recordings for Columbia. These releases weren't particularly successful in their initial release, but after Aretha Franklin became "Aretha," these fine recordings were repackaged and reissued. In this arrangement, she takes "Love for Sale" at a fairly breezy clip; as she sings, it's great fun to listen for those little hints of the great soul singer she would soon become.

Nellie McKay

Not too long ago, Nellie McKay emerged on the American music scene as something of a wunderkind. At 27, she's already established herself as an unusually gifted and idiosyncratic singer-songwriter (as well as an actor and a comedian). Refusing categorization, McKay draws inspiration for her music from the worlds of jazz, pop, rap and, in this instance, Tin Pan Alley. It's a fine testament to the staying power of Cole Porter's work that someone like McKay, who has made her mark with her own songwriting, would put her stamp on his music. But, once again, everybody loves Cole Porter.
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Brad Mehldau Trio

Much is made of Cole Porter's lyrics, and rightly so. But those lyrics would have much less life without his irresistible melodies. Since the dawn of bebop, jazz instrumentalists have had no problem separating Porter's music from his lyrics to create instrumental jazz standards. Charlie Parker did jazz arrangements of a number of Porter's songs and, since then, every generation of jazz players has taken a swing at many of them. A terrific entry from 2004 is this arrangement of "Anything Goes" by pianist Brad Mehldau. Mehldau evidently took Porter at his word, because anything goes in this version of the song. It's radically different from the way it sounded on Broadway in 1934, but it's still Cole Porter. And he's still the top. [Note: We were unable to secure rights from Rhino Records to stream this track.]