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.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album cover

This picture looks the way the music sounds.

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.

Coltrane, Hartman, Tyner

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.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Joel Hockey (May 15 2007, at 04:21)

This is a really nice album. I first heard about this album from poet Billy Collins, in his poem 'Nightclub'. I really enjoy Billy's poems - they are always entertaining. I think his peoms are best enjoyed by hearing him read them. You can actually hear a few of his poems at http://www.archive.org/details/BillyCollinsTheBestCigarette. The particular poem 'Nightclub' that is about the John Coltrane / Johnny Hartman 'You are Too Beautiful' is at the bottom of the page, but it is free, so you might as well grab the whole album.

The first verse is:

You are so beautiful and I am a fool

to be in love with you

is a theme that keeps coming up

in songs and poems.

There seems to be no room for variation.

I have never heard anyone sing

I am so beautiful

and you are a fool to be in love with me,

even though this notion has surely

crossed the minds of women and men alike.

You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool

is another one you don't hear.

Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.

That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

You can also buy Coltrane and Hartman album pretty cheap at http://www.allofmp3.com/r2/John_Coltrane/John_Coltrane_and_Johnny_Hartman/group_8074/album_45/mcatalog.shtml

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From: John Cowan (May 15 2007, at 06:02)

This reminds me of Leonard Bernstein's explanation of why Beethoven is the Greatest Composer Of All Time. Not because of his melodies, which are mostly thin and vapid; not because of his harmonies or rhythms, which are absolutely vanilla; certainly not because of his downright incompetent instrumentation (trumpet parts, says Bernstein, that stick out like sore thumbs, and writing for the voice that's no less than murderous). But because, and only because, when you hear the next note of a Beethoven piece, you know it's the only possible next note.

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From: roberthahn (May 15 2007, at 06:16)

iTunes: $5.94

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From: Chris Ryland (May 15 2007, at 07:25)

Great job, Tim--this is an album I stumbled on via my sister back in the 70's and have always loved it.

(I think you're too defensive about crooner music, though. It has its place.)

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From: Leonya (May 15 2007, at 16:02)

Tim, why hate Lieder? Could you elaborate on that please? Because from my experience, Lieder is not the genre short of "actual verses and choruses, etc." I cannot call myself a huge fan of it, but some of it is really good, like Schubert's Winterreise cycle.

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From: Wayland T Washington (May 15 2007, at 16:18)

Ther is a little triangular plot of land (a park) bounded by Amsterdam Avenue, Hamilton Place, 143rd Street, and 144th Street here in New York (Manhattan/Harlem).

There are benches and some trees. It is named Johnny Hartman Square.

I walk by there at least once each day, most days. I haven't met anyone who knows for sure, or would tell me, that Hartman once lived in the neighborhood. He most likely did, though. That little park at the beginning of Hamilton Place heading south, is a site during the summers of the Jazzmobile when the Jazz muscians play outside for all to hear for free (one other place being Grant's Tomb).

I, too, have that CD and and older tape. I love it, and particularly the Coltrane solo on "Lush Life".

I think that Johnny Hartman belongs in the crooner class that was notable for Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock. He probably never received the comparable level of recognition in his lifetime, though. And I don't know why, either.

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From: bernie (May 15 2007, at 20:53)

Such a GREAT record. Thanks for the reminder that i need a digital copy to 5star for myself.

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From: walter (May 16 2007, at 10:00)

@roberthahn - thanks for the heads up. @ all ... I really enjoy jazz and pop and world music, and i also enjoy listening to crooners such as tony benett, bing crosby, dean martin, jerry vale, nat king cole, mel torme, etc...

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From: Jamie Anstice (May 16 2007, at 15:36)

>Jeepers, I would sound good singing in front of that band.

Where is jazz standard/Cole Porter/Gt American Songbook singstar? I'd buy that.

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From: Ben (May 17 2007, at 00:39)

Pharaoh Sanders played with Coltrane's backing band for a long time (I got to see them about 10 years ago). He never sounded as good as Trane did with them. To be honest, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones were much more entertaining (and I've heard less than stellar recordings involving Elvin Jones from the 70s fusion era, noone's infallible). The late Sonny Sharrock has Pharaoh Sanders and Co. on his last album, Ask The Ages and he shows up Sanders across the board (though the screechy sax wailing makes for a good background against some of the more atonal and wild things Sonny does on the guitar).

Sorry for the digression, but it wouldn't be that hard to sound like a total ass playing up in front of such amazing musicians as Coltrane's band. For most musicians, I think it would be a major challenge simply to keep up with them.

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