That’s short for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, recorded in one session—most songs in one take—on March 7, 1963. It sold a zillion copies back then, and was infamously nominated as the Greatest Recording Of All Time by some rock&roll-hating snob in a glossy mag in I think the early Eighties; but that was then, and I’m betting that a lot of people who’d really like it have never heard of it. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · Coltrane really needs no introduction... well, for those who’d like one, you could do worse than start here. I’ve always felt that while he was a fine player and occasionally broke through into divine brilliance, the reputation is partly a function of the remarkably-excellent musicians he always played with. He got noticed in the Miles Davis band, then his own quartet (the one that appears here) was McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Jeepers, I would sound good singing in front of that band.
As for Johnny Hartman, I have to confess ignorance; I have this record and a couple of random cuts pulled off Napster-that-was; he represents one of my many unfinished-musical-education projects. Apparently Coltrane was a big fan, and when they pitched the “album of ballads with a singer” concept to him, Hartman was his first and only choice. It was a good choice.
The Music · OK, this admittedly is all-ballads, all-crooning; but Hartman’s voice is so huge and rich and deep and intelligent, and the band so great, that that doesn’t matter; I’ve reduced more than one resolute hard-rock head-banger to emotional mush by playing this record.
I just don’t know another singer who sounds anything like Johnny Hartman does here. He manages the trick that opera singers strain for, usually failing, of hitting remarkable high notes and low notes and long notes and sugary notes and heavy vibratos and suddenly-no-vibrato and still sounding natural and colloquial and just getting out of the way and letting the music pour through. His technique is so perfect that it just vanishes.
There are only six songs, only a half-hour of music. I honestly can’t pick a favorite. On the opening They Say It’s Wonderful, Coltrane attaches perfect little sotto voce ornaments to the places in the tune, and only those places, where they need to be.
The lyrics of Dedicated to You are shamelessly sentimental, but anyone who fancies themselves occasionally creative will have a hard time not getting pulled along.
My One and Only Love has a wonderful arching melody and Hartman eases back on the ornamentation to ride it, but then Coltrane is there again hanging little fragments of gold and diamond on the walls of the song. Maybe, if I had to pick, my fave here.
Which brings us to Lush Life, which is difficult. One time I was in a good hotel in LA and they had an outstanding cocktail pianist in the lobby bar, a pale-haired lady of a certain age with a whole lot of soul, she asked for requests and I said “Lush Life” and she said “You must be kidding.” It’s a completely over-written song about booze and love and being wrong, with far too many words and no actual verses and choruses and and hardly any melodies at all, frankly reminiscent in places of Lieder, a genre I wholly hate. But Hartman just nails it; switches to a lighter, less-reverberant tone for the storytelling opening, meanders on and on but then there’s Tyner dropping little clusters of notes in just the right places and you just have to listen to the story. Which gets weird and sad pretty quick, and then Johnny sings Ah yes... I was wrong, again; I was wrong and if you’ve had one too many drinks you’ll probably find yourself diluting the next one with your tears; because who among us hasn’t been wrong about love? Then the song gets a little too complicated for its own good, but still, there are two or three lines that are candidates for the best ever recorded by anyone. Romance is mush, indeed. And Hartman’s last note always makes me twist up my face because I can’t decide whether it’s perfect or just out of tune. But for sure it’s not boring.
You Are Too Beautiful is arguably sexist and over-possessive and exhibits all sorts of sentiments we currently prefer to route around; and indeed some of it bothers me. But then Hartman hits the big high note about other men’s kisses and drops into if <pause> on the other hand <pause> I’m faithful to you <pause> it’s not through a sense of duty... and listen to the enunciation, graceful granite, you can hear not every word but every sub-sub-syllable, and Hartman doesn’t neglect any of them.
I haven’t said much about Coltrane, who’s only one of the greatest sax players ever. That’s because he’s decided to get behind the singer and be part of the band, and boy is he ever good at it. Except for on Autumn Serenade, in a rumba tempo. This is the only cut where Hartman doesn’t suspend my disbelief, the singing is beautiful but it doesn’t touch my experience. Then Coltrane steps out and reminds you why his name is first on the front of the record. It sure is fun to listen to even if it doesn’t cut anywhere near as deep as Hartman does on the good songs.
Sampling It · Go get the CD already. The sound is beautiful and uncluttered and if perchance you should ever come into ownership of a really good stereo, you won’t believe how great fifty-year-old recorded sound can be; before studios were equipped with 70-channel all-digital mixing boards. At standard CD pricing it’s arguably expensive, but there are a few moments on here that are entirely beyond price, so just put that behind you.