John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Coltrane, John and Johnny Hartman

album cover

The Art of the Ballad

Johnny Hartman's baritone calls from the bar Billy Strayhorn was writing about in "Lush Life," the once-glamorous place offering "jazz and cocktails" to a clientele of slightly frayed regulars. His voice is slippery and warm, as inviting as the leather banquette where couples sit for hours, gazing in a love trance. Its warm timbre evokes other pleasures, too—the breeze on a seaside veranda, butter melting on a homemade biscuit.

In terms of sheer smooth sound, no jazz singer ever got in the same ballpark. Hartman's voice transports you inside the songs almost involuntarily, and keeps you transfixed with an almost magical shorthand—he sings jazz with no shooby-doo whatsoever. On this, the most important record he ever made, Hartman's tone is complemented by another, equally elemental sound: the glinting metallic cry of John Coltrane's tenor saxophone.

Recorded in a single day in 1963, this six-song collection finds the unlikely tandem working over some tender saloon songs—in addition to "Lush Life," there's a definitive "My One and Only Love," and a melancholy treatment of "They Say It's Wonderful." Hartman (1923–1983), a balladeer in the Billy Eckstine mold, hadn't made a record of his own since 1956, but there's no evidence of rust: His edge-free voice glides regally along, not asserting authority but being authoritative nonetheless. The same goes for Coltrane. Here and on the equally rhapsodic Ballads—arguably the most beautiful set of torch songs ever recorded by a jazz instrumentalist—he tugs at the edges of music, gliding through the contours of the melodies until he arrives at the most telling and poignant notes. Lots of jazz musician-singer collaborations offer more tunes than the six featured here; few, though, contain more music.

Genre: Jazz, Vocals
Released: 1963, Impulse
Key Tracks: "Lush Life," "They Say It's Wonderful," "My One and Only Love."
Catalog Choice: Hartman: I Just Dropped By to Say Hello. Coltrane: Ballads.
Next Stop: Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington: Francis A. and Edward K
After That: Bill Evans and Tony Bennett: The Tony Bennett–Bill Evans Album
Book Pages: 183–184

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