The greatest pop voices of our time. Day 5, also-rans: Johnny Hartman

February 24, 2011 • 5:56 am

In the history of jazz, there have been two great combinations of solo saxophone players and vocalists.  One, of course, was Billie Holiday and Lester Young (perhaps some day we’ll have Jazz Vocalist Week and Saxophone Week).  Holiday was, without doubt, the greatest jazz vocalist of all time, and Lester’s delicate playing spun a skein of notes around her like yarn around a kitten.

The other duo is not so well known—as a duo.  One member was the legendary John Coltrane; all jazz enthusiasts know him, and I hope one day to put up some of his songs.  The other was the vocalist I’m featuring today: Johnny Hartman (1923-1983).  Hartman was not nearly as well known as he should have been, perhaps because his output was small.  But his voice was beautiful, mellow and smoky—like a combination of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.  And although Hartman is considered a jazz singer, I’ll put him under “pop” because he sang mostly ballads—and because I don’t want to leave him out.

The collaboration with Coltrane is limited to a single album, Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane (1963).  But it is, I think, the greatest stand-alone album of jazz vocals ever produced.  Billie Holiday is still the best singer, but in individual songs rather than album collections.   Many jazz buffs will beef, saying that the Hartman/Coltrane songs are romantic ballads, but remember how many jazz greats (including Charlie Parker) recorded ballads.

The album has six songs, each of them a classic.  All but one were recorded in a single take. The setup is the same for each: there are long solos by Coltrane, and then vocals by Hartman with Coltrane in the background.  The result is mesmerizing.  I’ll put up four of them and link to the other two.  There are no live performances because this was a studio album.  The “studio musicians” were great jazz musicians as well: McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass.  For the following four, click on the line that says “Watch on YouTube“:

My favorite: “My One and Only Love”

“They Say It’s Wonderful” (written by Irving Berlin for the musical Annie Get Your Gun!)

“Lush Life” (the Billy Strayhorn classic):

“Dedicated to You”

and . .

Autumn Serenade

You Are Too Beautiful

You can buy all the songs for six bucks on iTunes, or for 12 bucks on Amazon.  Here are the Amazon ratings:

21 thoughts on “The greatest pop voices of our time. Day 5, also-rans: Johnny Hartman

  1. That is a good album! I stumbled on it not knowing who Johnny Hartman was. Yeah, I would recommend it to any jazz fan. Well, to any music lover, really.

  2. Thanx for putting these up, Jerry. For my money, Coltrane is the best sax of all time, and Hartman the best ballad singer (male)ever! His voice had a timbre and clarity unmatched by anyone else before or since, with an ease of production to die for. A joy to hear!

  3. I’m with you here. I usually go for instrumental music, because I have a tough time picking out words in music. They all sound like unintelligible strings of vowels to me – and then it gets frustrating when people tell me how lovely the lyrics are, when all I can make out is ooo-aaa-iii-sp-zizz-eeeaaahh-oooh. All-in-all, I’d just rather hear instrumentalists playing their butts off.

    Johnny Hartman stands out as a clear exception — and the pairing with Coltrane was exceptional magic. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Yes, a cross between Cole and Crosby! Lovely, potent duo.

    I was going to post some also rans but with this, they will just seem shabby.

  5. The music is great and the recording is awesome to capture such a deep mellow sound space. I recall reading a review I can’t find now that called it the best technical jazz album ever. Wish I could remember more about the setup… a very special microphone was involved.

    1. Rudy van Gelder was and is very cagey about technical specifics, generally. Hopefully he doesn’t take those details to the grave with him.

      Someone transcribed the liner notes here, which gives insight as to the mono vs stereo business that others get wrong on other forums. (some mistakenly think the monos are a “mixdown” of the stereo, when the monos were really the original stuff heard in the control room and a two-track was used as a backup — consequently, the mono sounds better, and the two-track is now what’s on most of the CDs these days). A Rudy master will have both mono and stereo versions.

      discussion here:

      the wiki on Rudy (which has links to interviews with him, illustrating his caginess of all matters techie):

  6. Well, that was certainly a welcome change from the last four pap singers* whose skills you’ve been extolling…it’s very well made, smooth pap but it’s still bland and flavourless pap with little nutritional value.

    *Other than Sinatra’s work from the 40s…especially with Tommy Dorsey.

  7. Glad to see “Lush Life” here. Strayhorn wrote a lot of great tunes, some for which his writing partner, Duke Ellington (no composing slouch himself) has been given credit. Strayhorn wrote Lush Life when he was a teenager, and although I tend to eschew vocal jazz, I can still greatly appreciate Hartman’s talent.

  8. Oh yeah, great record.
    Another great one: Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley (1961) but that’s definitely,/i> ‘jazz’.

    Kind of strange to call Hartman a “pop” singer because he sang ballads, but not Pops, who actually had a #1 ‘pop hit’ (Hello, Dolly, 1964, kicking the Beatles’s arses!), but genre semantics are always unsatisfactory.

    1. I remember having lots of trouble finding Zappa’s “Jazz From Hell” in a music store in the 80s…only to find out that it had been classified as “New Age” and filed next to Andreas Vollenweider.

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