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Eric Byrd Trio takes on classic hits in Cole tribute concert

It's been nearly 50 years since Nat King Cole died of lung cancer, his baritone voice permanently silenced at the age of 45.

Yet so many of his hit songs live on today via compact disc, iTunes and, for the first time in Carroll County, through a weekend tribute concert by the Eric Byrd Trio.

Unforgettable: A Tribute to Nat King Cole will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster.

The jazz trio fronted by Byrd, a McDaniel College lecturer, has performed Cole tribute shows in the D.C. area, but this is their debut Cole effort in Carroll. It will be a night where Byrd covers many of Cole's most well-known hits. The group will also take on Cole classics that resonated with Byrd and band mates Alphonso Young (drums) and Bhagwan Khalsa (bass).

"We're not going to imitate Nat or we're not trying to do what he did note for note," Byrd said. "At the end of the day, we're taking songs he made popular or he made famous and adapt that to what we do."

The Eric Byrd Trio, which dub themselves 21st century swing musicians, has performed internationally for more than a decade. The group was a former Kennedy Center and State Department jazz ambassador and performed in Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Honduras.

Byrd first played Cole's music at a gig in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. For that concert, he did not have a drummer. Thus, he thought of Cole and his penchant for making a drummerless trio a standard.

"Nat did a lot of recordings with just a piano and a bass guitar," he said. "I've always been interested in that sound."

Byrd tried Cole's music with guitarist Carey Smith during the debut tribute show.

"It almost immediately seemed to make sense," Byrd said.

Smith will be joining the trio once again Saturday. Among the Cole hits to be covered: "Unforgettable," "L.O.V.E.," "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Mona Lisa." Expect a night of fast swing and ballads.

So often Byrd, a professional pianist for more than two decades, can be found behind the piano providing the chords that keep the jazz trio music flowing. And while he'll still be doing that Saturday, he'll also get a chance to simply sing.

Byrd is no stranger to the Carroll Arts Center. He plays the score to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" each December.

"Eric Byrd doesn't only play during the holidays," Carroll County Arts Council Executive Director Sandy Oxx said. "Retro is in and I think that both fans of Nat King Cole from the 1950s as well as today's audiences that thrive on 'Mad Men' will enjoy this nostalgic concert."

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