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The end of 1962 was a particularly difficult time for acclaimed saxophonist John Coltrane. Suffering from dental problems that saw him unable to properly utilize the embouchure that was crucial for his highly innate and powerful sound, as well as criticism from reviewers and musicians alike for his quartet’s challenging avant style, Coltrane’s next three albums saw a radical change of direction. With his new quartet, consisting of Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner, and an altered playing style built on melody and finesse, Coltrane released a set of three ballad albums recorded between 1962 and 1963, Ballads, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane.
Hartman, his suggested partner on the latter and old bandmate from the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, was also struggling as a critically acclaimed but widely underappreciated baritone singer, who gained some exposure for his work with Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie but had not sung on record since 1959’s unsuccessful solo effort And I Thought About You. Fortunately for Hartman, his work with Coltrane would not only go on to give him lasting recognition, it would also become a classic album of definitive ballads that over four decades later remain some of the most beautifully moving jazz ever put to record.
The interplay between Coltrane and Hartman is undoubtedly the highlight of the disc, accentuated by the impeccable piano of McCoy Tyner. Ironically, while Hartman was initially hesitant about the suitability of performing with Coltrane, rarely has a singer been so perfectly attuned to a band. Hartman’s smooth baritone voice (the only vocal that Coltrane would ever record with) is absolutely sublime, powerfully simplistic in its interpretation of the melody, yet brimming with utter conviction for every lyric. The lines of opener “They Say It’s Wonderful” are testament to this- amongst the delicate subtlety of McCoy’s playing; Hartman’s voice displays a beautiful warble brimming with gentle emotion.
Above the stunning tone, interpretation, and pacing, it is this bare conviction that elevates Hartman’s performance to a definitive standard, he feels and means every line, instantly establishing an atmosphere of intense longing and profound desire. Hartman believes not only in the words he sings, but in the ability of his own voice, masterfully utilizing it to great extent without any superfluous ornamentation. His interpretation of “Lush Life” deserves particular attention, as Hartman navigates the difficult track with an ease and class: the concluding lines especially are simply superb and unmatched in their display of heartache and sorrow.
When Coltrane’s soulful saxophone appears to provide the melody, the joint presence is immediately felt. Quite far from the complexities of his usual work, Coltrane adopts a similar approach to Hartman, a stripped bare delivery devoid of excess, allowing his warm tone to shine. In this way, Hartman and Coltrane are given equal weight and effectively share the role of creating melody. While Hartman takes the lead on “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “Dedicated to You” before making way for Coltrane’s soft saxophone lines and cadenzas, the opposite occurs on “My One and Only Love,” and “You are Too Beautiful,” both true romantic classics interpreted brilliantly by the pair.
Through this careful restraint, Hartman and Coltrane are never competing for attention or intertwining with excessive complexity, rather they make the necessary space for each other to excel, letting McCoy, along with the unobtrusive accompaniment of Garrison and Jones, provide the backdrop for their collaboration. The richness evident in such sparse and understated playing is a fine demonstration of the collective musical ability here; even as the tempo increases for closer “Autumn Serenade,” (which centers around a more characteristic Coltrane Solo) the band retains a sense of calm composure and delivers fitting closer driven by the increased presence of Garrison’s bass.
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman spins for only half an hour, but each track is executed to perfection and rightly considered definitive, remarkable considering all but one were recorded in a single take. An excellent display of talented collaboration where the musicians complement and enhance each other rather than vie for attention or slide into jumbled incoherency, this is a landmark record too often undervalued amidst Coltrane’s more technical work. (And perhaps overvalued in Hartman’s discography to the detriment of his other efforts) Essential for avid and casual fans of jazz alike, and highly recommended for any music lover, John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman is a masterpiece of remarkably presented jazz, perfect for late nights alone or with company- romantic, skillful, and wonderfully smooth, this is Hartman’s finest hour, an outstanding display of Coltrane’s versatility, and one of the finest and most beautiful moments in the history of the genre.