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TV REVIEWS : ‘Vintage Getz’ and an Unforgettable Nat Cole

“Vintage Getz,” airing tonight at 7 on the Bravo cable channel, is more than its title implies, since the vintage is very recent. It was filmed last year during a concert at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley.

Stan Getz, a leader of countless small groups for almost 40 years, is seen here heading a since-disbanded but most impressive group, with pianist Jim McNeely as a central figure and composer of the first four pieces: A rhythm tune, a waltz, a ballad and a blues number.

The always-warm sound and subtle phrasing of Getz’s tenor sax can be impressive with any backing, but here, with McNeely’s well-tailored themes and the strong support of Victor Lewis on drums and Marc Johnson on bass, he is in exceptionally elegant form.

The long show, which begins in daylight in a handsome arbored setting, ends 109 minutes later at twilight. Production values are minimal. There are a few crowd reaction shots; Getz speaks briefly, paying tribute to his new grandchildren and dedicating one song to the memory of his father. There is no interview. The music mercifully is never interrupted by voice-overs.

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Not until an hour into the program as edited for TV does Getz get around to two of the bossa nova numbers that enhanced his fame in the early 1960s. Having fulfilled that obligation, Getz says wryly: “Well, now that we’ve got that out of the way. . .” and proceeds to material more to his liking: “Alone Together,” Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and, for a poignant finale, “Bloodcount,” the last song Billy Strayhorn wrote and clearly one that has a special significance for the ailing Getz.

It might be argued that “Vintage Getz” would have been more compact as a 60-minute show, but when artistry on this level is involved, it is all but impossible to have too much of a good thing. Getz today, as yesterday, is one of the great style setters of jazz history.

“The Unforgettable Nat ‘King’ Cole,” airing at 1:30 a.m. tonight and again March 30 and April 17 on the Disney Channel, is an hourlong examination of Cole’s life, using rare performance footage and interviews with relatives and friends.

Maria Cole, the singer’s widow, was a consultant on the project, co-produced by Jo Lustig and BBC-TV; she is also the main speaker, talking about their lives together, leaving the musical details to Mel Torme, Oscar Peterson, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, among others.

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The problem with any artist of Cole’s stature is that his hit songs were too numerous; most are heard only in brief excerpts. Still, there is enough of “The Christmas Song,” “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa” and others to convey his unique timbre, warmth and intimate personal appeal.

There are fascinating clips from a 1957 appearance on “This Is Your Life” and from “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show,” an NBC series that was canceled in 1957 after 65 weeks because it was impossible to find a national sponsor for a black artist. Maria Cole quotes her husband as concluding that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

Madison Avenue was not alone. The Coles’ home in Hancock Park was the scene of a cross burning, chillingly described by Cole’s daughter Carol. Lee Young, Cole’s drummer, recalls the night when the singer was subjected to a racist attack on stage in Birmingham, Ala.

Most observers will be surprised to note that Cole’s heavy smoking habit (he died in 1964 of lung cancer) is not discussed. Nor is very much made of his contribution as a jazz pianist. Far too little is heard of his playing. Even when Quincy Jones describes how European audiences cried for him to play more, the subsequent solo yields to a voice-over after a few bars.

As a pianist, Cole won Esquire awards in the 1940s and was a major influence. Failure to bring this out compounds a long-standing injustice to his memory.

Still, as a recollection of his years as a respected entertainer, whose dignity and patience enabled him to endure the bitter racism of his time, “The Unforgettable Nat ‘King’ Cole” is a valuable document.


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