Classic Albums – John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

Back in the mid to late 1980s, I used to drink regularly on Sunday lunchtimes with a group of music-mad mates of my dads. They all either sang in pubs and clubs (like my dad and his best mate Gudger) or they collected copious amounts of vinyl and later CDs of great vocalists such as Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Junior.

One day little Dave, so called because he was little and called Dave, said to me ‘You like jazz don’t’cha Bax?’ to which I eagerly nodded. ‘Thought so’ he continued ‘I thought of you this week when I picked up a blinding CD of a geezer singing along with John Coltrane…’

I put down my drink of choice and challenged him, saying he was talking tosh, as Coltrane had never worked with a vocalist.

He simply smiled at my lack of knowledge. ‘Ok son, have it your way. I’ll tape you a copy for next week.’ Which he duly did, and you know what he was totally right. I’m still apologising to this day by the way.

The tape I now owned was of the album ‘John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’ and it quickly became a firm fave of mine. 

So, this is my choice of a classic album this time around.

Coltrane and Hartman were both members of a Dizzy Gillespie line up of the late 1940s. However, they overlapped and didn’t play with each other. Coltrane first heard balladeer Hartman at The Apollo Theatre in 1950.

Many years later, he put out a request to work with him. Producer Bob Thiele then had the task of putting the two together. Hartman was at first reluctant, fearing Coltrane would be too strident to work alongside his tender, almost subdued vocals.  However, he was persuaded to go along to hear Coltrane at the ‘Birdland’ jazz club and upon hearing John play ballads, Hartman then knew it would work. They then met up and clicked, so in March 1963 they set out to record together. 

Coltrane was 37, Harman aged 40.

They recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio in New Jersey. It was reported a little while after, that each song was done in one take, apart from ‘You are Too Beautiful’ on which drummer Elvin Jones dropped a drum stick on take one. This was an urban myth however, as alternative takes to each song have subsequently been discovered in the vaults.

The album itself opens with ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’ written by Irving Berlin. Immediately you are entranced by the velvety smooth vocals of Hartman, which then lightly interplay with Coltrane who is wistfully playing a supporting role from the off on this one.

Jones on the brushes keeps the whole thing ticking over and the piano work of McCoy Turner punctuates the almost effortless feel. From 2.20 ‘Trane opens up and carries the tune along very nicely. The mix of straight head sounding Hartman and the occasional flash of modern jazz lines from Coltrane are just fascinating as Hartman then comes back in and takes it home.

‘Dedicated to You’ from the pens of Cahn/Chaplin and Zaret is simply a beaut. Hartman and Coltrane both achieve a fragile sound on this and that delicacy is a joy to behold. The ‘Trane riff is just gorgeous. From 2.44 Hartman then goes up a gear and picks up on the Coltrane sound and they work wonderfully together. Coltrane then puffs the song over the line at the end. Sumptuous.

Coltrane then opens up ‘My One and Only’ with a melancholic refrain of heartbreaking simplicity, but it is oh so effective. This is one of my favourite solos from the great man and he works it wonderfully up to halfway, from where Hartman takes over. His voice, a full and rich baritone is just made for moments like this and it is then that you know that the two performing together are plainly meant to be.

The stone classic ‘Lush Life’ from the pen of Billy Strayhorn is the next cab off the rank. The wonderful lyric ‘Then you came along with your siren song to tempt me to madness’ gets me every time. Hartman tenderly serves up the song on a plate and from 3.08 Coltrane and the band kick it around nicely but never lose the thread of the melody. ‘Trane is then at his strident best as is Jones on the drums, and they then hand it back in good shape to Hartman to end it with the piano tinkling behind the vocal, that he is completely fully in control of.

‘You are too Beautiful’ from Rodgers and Hart arrives and Hartman’s delicate phasing punctuated by Coltrane’s sax and Tyner’s piano are intoxicating. The band stretch out midway through with Jimmy Garrison on the double bass and the interplay between them all is top drawer.

A slight change of pace heralds the last song ‘Autumn Serenade’ as the tempo rises ever so slightly. Coltrane hits a fine seam with his solo and takes it up even further just when you think there is nowhere is else for it to go. I found myself holding my breath a couple of times when I first heard this so intense did it feel.

The song selection makes this album for me and it is obvious Coltrane and Hartman knew this material very well and boy do they deliver. They are very much equals on this recording with neither overplaying their hand.

‘Johnny Hartman, a man that I had just stuck up in my mind somewhere, I just felt something about him’ Coltrane later said of his one-time-only partner. ‘I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear.’

I’m glad they got together when they did, as sadly Coltrane died young aged just 40 just a few short years later in 1967.  Johnny Hartman died at 60 in 1983.

I listened back to the album to write this and if anything, it is even better than I remembered it. 

I just recommend you to get a copy if you haven’t got one in your collection. It really is a thing of sheer beauty.

The Mumper of SE5