Saturday, December 13, 2014

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman - A Improbable Duo

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Shortly after John Coltrane formed his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, they played a gig at The Renaissance Club which located on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, CA.

I missed the gig but a close friend of mine took it in. When I asked him how it was he started shaking his head. “That good?,” I said. “No,” he replied. “Then why are you shaking your head?,” I asked. “Because I am still trying to get the ringing sound out of my ears,” he said. “I’ve never, ever heard such a loud group in my life and there were only four of them! Each tune they played went on forever!!”

Many Jazz fans who had known and enjoyed John Coltrane’s tenor sax work with the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet had reactions similar to my buddy’s when they heard John’s new quartet in performance.

Fast forward to about a year later when this same friend comes over to my place with an LP tucked under his arm. “You are never going to believe this,” he said. “Do you know who Coltrane just made an album with?,” he asked [with a look of incredulity in his eyes]. He pulls the album cover he was carrying out from under his arm, holds it up to my face and exclaims: “Johnny Hartman! Can you believe that? And its great. Go figure,” he said.

Recorded in May, 1963 on Impulse Records, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman [Impulse! AS-40 LP; CD 051157-2] surprised a lot of people.

The pairing of Coltrane and Hartman struck many people as improbable because as Richard Cook and Brian Morton point out in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:  “Hartman's rich, lustrous baritone was really suited to only one tempo, slow enough for every syllable to be enunciated with loving attention. Oddly, having worked with Earl Hines, Errol Garner and Dizzy Gillespie, he is nowadays best remembered for a somewhat unlikely Impulse! pairing with the giant of modernism, John Coltrane.

Messrs. Cook and Morton go one to say: “America in 1962 was no place to be black and angry. LeRoi Jones's play Dutchman is susceptible of a good many readings, but among other things it is about white America's ambivalent willingness to let black anger discharge itself, in order to destroy and negate it.

In John Coltrane, there was a constant war between rage and beauty. Compounded by personal pain and not yet redeemed by the great spiritual awakening celebrated on A Love Supreme, it often saw him zig-zag between celebration and an almost nihilistic ferocity. In the second half of 1962 Coltrane had been experiencing further dental problems and was having difficulty with his articulation. Partly to work around that limitation, partly no doubt to generate some market-friendly product, Bob Thiele suggested the Ballads project, and also the session with singer Johnny Hartman; he had also managed to arrange the historic encounter with Duke Ellington. Coltrane had always been an exquisite ballad-player and the material he chose for [all of these] …  date[s] was guaranteed to please ….”

Also edifying in explaining why the pairing of Coltrane and Hartman, while unusual, was nonetheless successful are A.B. Spellman’s liner notes to the original Impulse! LP which was produced for CD by Michael Cuscuna, who has given JazzProfiles permission to reprint them below.

© -  Impulse!/Michael Cuscuna; used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“This record serves a double purpose: it brings back into the public ear one of the most neglected singers of the middle bop era and it proves in a novel — for them — way that John C. and his Thrilling Three are eloquent balladiers and very, very sensitive accompanists. I say novel for them because, to my knowledge, no singer has ever performed or recorded with the John Coltrane quartet. The quartet has been, till now, concerned with other things, with the development of a kinetic vernacular which facilitated the release of a kind of group energy that was deeper in content and fuller in emotional color than any music I have ever experienced, anywhere.

How translate this energy-formed vernacular to the more articulate but more restrictive form of the song? For one thing, Trane's been recording little else lately. His latest two releases were Ballads (Impulse A-32) and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse A-3O), which were about 2/3 ballads. In these two dates, particularly the latter, Trane showed a lyric sophistication that surprised nobody who'd ever sat through more than one of his sets in the clubs. His ballad style is increasingly becoming as subtle as his uptempo blues playing is dynamic, as witness Autumn Serenade.  The vernacular translates quite well; is, in fact, the same language.

Johnny Hartman was Coltrane's unequivocal choice for the singer he'd like most to be caught with in front of a mike. Hartman is one of the very best of a strong lot of big-voiced crooners who were the sine qua non of the big bebop band. He conjures up images of Earl Coleman with the big voice, the even bigger collar, and the skinny, drooping boptie; of Lee Richardson, a good one, whom Hartman replaced with Dizzy's Band; of Herb Jeffries, the Brownskinned Buckaroo; of Herb Lance and Arthur Prysock; and of course, of the Great Mister B, Billy Eckstine.

Where are they now? That jazz singing, especially among male singers, has declined since the fadeout of the bebop band is one of the least controversial topics in jazz. Replacing the masculinity of the crooner with the effeteness of the lark is only another kind of the premature destruction of artists by factors which have nothing to do with their art, which destruction we are the passive witnesses of in these times.

So we are fortunate to have Johnny Hartman back in the life, and in a better than "favorable" setting, too.

You are immediately struck by Hartman's dark satin lyricism in They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful.

His voice, always a perfectly tuned instrument, is unobtrusive and relaxing, heavy in quality but almost without tremolo, which makes Hartman unique among the big-voiced boppers. His enunciation is impeccable (you'll hear every word on this record), which makes him unique among all male singers. He respects the word, adapts his vocal embellishments to the value (in meaning and sound) of the word: which makes him unique among everybody.

Coltrane's bridge is intended to fit into the totality of the song. He doesn't, as you might expect of such a hard-blowing tenor man, try to overpower the singer or the song. He rather re-interprets it along the same lines as Hartman.

Dedicated To You is rendered with all the intimacy the name suggests. Hartman sings the first verse and leaves off right in the middle of Coltrane's horn. This time it's Trane who makes the initial interpretation with one of the sweetest, most straightforward choruses he's ever recorded. You get the feeling Trane's thinking the words while he blows the melody. Then when Hartman sings the last verses you hardly notice the change from horn to vocal.

Coltrane introduces My One and Only Love, one of "Tin Pan Alley's" most lyric moments. It's a tender and rather complete statement from Trane. Garrison makes a strong bridge to Hartman, who breathes these lyrics like a horn. Garrison is a beautiful bass accompanist. He plays the lines under Hartman like the bass in a vocal quartet.  I don't mean to slight McCoy Tyner, whose skills as an accompanist were a known quantity by the time My Favorite Things became popular; or Elvin's sensitive restraint on drums. It's just that performing with a singer necessarily tones this group down and the bass lines get through better.

Lush Life, which Trane's recorded before, is often performed but never this well. Hartman's vocal control lets him handle the songspiel of the first stanza in a way that seems like pure communication. From there he glides through the difficult changes of a very wordy song with an ease of expression that pulls every nuance from it with no ostentation whatever. And Hartman, like Coltrane, uses Tyner's comping, both as an extension of his own expression and as a musical ancillary to a conversational song. Coltrane's solos—well, another insight into what the song is about.  A double-timed commentary on what Hartman's just said.

You Are Too Beautiful For One Man Alone is one of my favorite songs. Again, Hartman impresses by his ability to approach every song in terms of what it is about. The essence of his style is relaxed communication.  He and McCoy Tyner are perfectly in tune. Every phrase in this set is impeccably stated. By everyone. Trane lays out on this tune.

Autumn Serenade is a light-headed rumba. Hartman makes his voice a little heavier to get that effect across. Again he takes an instrumental stance in the group. Coltrane plays his longest and most powerful solo. For the only time on this set he concentrates more on the harmonic and rhythmic implications of the changes than on the melodic line. Thus he makes those perfectly placed embellishments in all parts of the horn that we know him by. Heretofore Trane's played a relatively self-effacing set. Now he stretches out, in a languid sort of way, and plays a solo that is at once relaxing, poignant, strong, romantic, danceable, complex and beautiful. The man is a master, easily the most identifiable tenor player since Lester Young. A man who found his own voice and refined it to a point where he constantly finds new and more subtle areas of expression in it. Like Johnny Hartman.

A.B. Spellman
(Original liner notes from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman AS-40)”


All of John Coltrane's Impulse sessions at Rudy Van Gelder's studio were done directly to two-track stereo tape. After completing this collaboration with Johnny Hartman, a master tape was assembled from the original session tapes.

At a later date, Coltrane decided to overdub some additional obbligato saxophone phrases behind Hartman’s vocals on My One and Only Love, Lush Life and You Are Too Beautiful. A new master was made by Rudy Van Gelder, who added some additional echo to the three tracks. Although the first release of the album used the original master without Coltrane's additional obbligatos, it was later substituted with the new master. This gave rise to the rumor that alternate takes of My One and Only Love, Lush Life and You Are Too Beautiful existed and were issued on some pressings. No alternate takes exist or have been issued.

For this reissue, we have used the original master tape for They Say It's Wonderful, Dedicated To You and Autumn Serenade and the remastered versions of the three tunes mentioned.

A version of "Afro Blue" was recorded at this session, but it was never issued and no tape of this performance exists. Presumably Hartman sang Oscar Brown, Jr.'s lyrics to this Mongo Santamaria composition. A few months later, this would be a staple in the quartet's book as an instrumental.”


While it is almost impossible to chose from the six tracks on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, I went with the rarely-heard Autumn Serenade on the following video tribute to the album.

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