Johnny Hartman

TrackAlbum
Moonlight In VermontSongs From The Heart
Ain't Misbehavin'’Songs From The Heart
Lush LifeJohn Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
You Are Too BeautifulJohn Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
They Say It’'s WonderfulJohn Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
Dedicated To YouJohn Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
CharadeI Just Dropped By To Say Hello
Stairway To The StarsI Just Dropped By To Say Hello
I Just Dropped By To Say HelloI Just Dropped By To Say Hello
My ShipThe Voice That Is!

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Contributor: Bert Wright

The first time I heard the velvety tones of Johnny Hartman’s voice was on a jazz compilation album which included his wonderful version of Billy Strayhorn’s classic Lush Life. For years it was the only track I’d ever heard by Johnny Hartman. A few years later I was browsing a sidewalk vendor’s stand on a New York street and happened upon a cassette of the original album he made with John Coltrane, simply entitled John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman on the Impulse label. It was a moment of discovery I’ve cherished since that day in 1982 because the album has become one of the most-played in my entire collection. And I am not alone because many people are insanely devoted to it. Throwing proportion to the four winds, Daniel Ockrent, a former New York Times editor and jazz aficionado claims it’s the best album ever made.

Its origins are fascinating because on the face of it, the mellow songster was a strange choice of partner for the anti-christ of free jazz, John Coltrane, to pick. Apparently, Coltrane’s producer at Impulse Records, wanted Coltrane to make some more accessible music at a time when his wilder music was being badly received. But Hartman was no stooge and Coltrane’s choice was an informed one as he would later explain, “Johnny Hartman – a man that I’d had stuck up in my mind somewhere – I just felt something about him, you know, I don’t know what it was. And I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear, you know.” The result of the collaboration is pure gold with Coltrane on his best lyrical behaviour trading beautifully understated phrases with Hartman’s rich mahogany baritone voice. McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones make up a stellar quartet on this cult classic of an album first recorded in 1963. At six tracks it’s short but which tracks to leave out was the problem for me so I’ve gone with four of them.

Later that year, Hartman recorded another fine album for Impulse, this time with Illinois Jacquet replacing Coltrane on tenor with Hank Jones on piano and Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell sharing the guitar role. The transition from one album to the next is seamless and I Just Dropped By To Say Hello rates second in the Hartman catalogue only because it came slightly later. Again, I can select no less than three tracks from eleven with Stairway To The Stars a particular favourite. Note Jacquet’s tenor sax purring into life like a cat uncurling itself on a sun-soaked window ledge.

Unquestionably, Johnny Hartman’s output was patchy and he never made another album to equal the two great Impulse albums, finding himself stereotyped as a balladeer and workaday interpreter of the great American songbook at a time when the Beatles were knocking Sinatra and the rest of the crooners on their asses. So I’ve chosen a cool version of the Kurt Weill song My Ship from the album The Voice That Is! (1965) and to finish, a knockout version of one of my all-time favourite songs, Moonlight In Vermont, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ from Songs From The Heart (1955), this last illustrating the way he could never resist turning any song into a ballad.

In his later career, Hartman found himself out of fashion and making a living as a lounge singer, his recordings laced with syrupy strings which can set the teeth on edge at times. But he had his day in the sun and not nearly enough people know about him. At his best he had phrasing the equal of Sinatra and the intonation of Billy Eckstine and Mel Torme. (Sinatra and Tony Bennett both respected him greatly.) He died at 60 of lung cancer and you can’t help but feeling regret over the album cover of I Just Dropped By To Say Hello in which he appears wreathed in cigarette smoke, a typically ‘cool’ image of the time. So a shooting star rather than a supernova but undeniably a brilliant one in the firmament of jazz.

The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story

Johnny Hartman biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #166

2 Comments

  1. Vee W. Garcia
    Jan 17, 2014

    This is a wonderful, informative post. Enjoyed reading it. Also I enjoyed the video. Thank you.

  2. Glenn Smith
    Mar 8, 2014

    Thanks Bert for a great post. The Coltrane/Hartman record is quite unreal, in the true sense of the word. What forces within the universe brought those two together, in that place, at that time? This was the perfect place for Coltrane, he knew the beauty of a great melody and was never afraid to work within conventional song structures. He was so good, he could take a song back to first basics and reinterpret it in a way that made them sound like they had just been written. And Hartman didn’t blink, he too knew the tunes, had worked them over throughout his career, and yet he knew this was different, he had to deliver in a way that matched Coltrane’s genius. As you say it’s only six songs, but then maybe that is right too, could we have taken much more of this, could they have sustained it?
    Kurt Elling has toured a tribute to the album (it was a great show, he nearly pulled it off, but you know you can’t mess with perfection) and he tells the story of how they were on their way to the session when Lush Life comes on the radio and there and then they figured they would do that too! I first heard the album at a friend’s house, who just casually dropped it on the turntable, walked out and waited for the reaction, from that moment it was and is my favourite all time record.
    Like you and countless others, I then went looking for more. “I Just Dropped By” is a great record and your choices are spot on. Interestingly Johnny pops up on the soundtrack to the Bridges of Madison County, with two beautiful tracks “I See Your Face Before Me” and “For all We Know”. As you’ve noted, it is well worth looking at Johnny’s work across his career, but nothing will ever match that one session in March 1963.

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