Icons / September 2015

Six of the Best: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s 1963 jazz collaboration came about in unlikely, arbitrary circumstances. Yet this seminal album’s six sublime, worldly-wise tracks could make the most ardent sceptic believe in…

There are few jazz albums a man might choose from for amorous purposes. Most of the best are the work of instrumentalists; certainly, hardly any featuring male singers fit the bill. One, however, does; one that establishes such a lofty standard, subsequent attempts to top or even equal it seem doomed from the outset. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, recorded in 1963 on the Impulse! label, remains perfectly suited to any encounter in which romance is meant to play a part. A mere half-hour of superbly selected songs by the likes of Irving Berlin, Billy Strayhorn and Rodgers and Hart, the program never becomes insistent, intrusive or self- involved. Six subtle yet fully dramatised renditions of highly literate lyrics and sophisticated melodies create a narrative arc that moves through successive stages of hope, promise, devotion, disengagement, acceptance and memory. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was recorded in 1963 in a lone studio
meeting between one of the most
ennobled icons in jazz at that time and
a lesser-known vocalist who, on the basis of this collaboration alone, left an indelible mark. The story behind it is remarkable for being mundane rather than glamorous. And, although the music is now nearly 50 years old, it has lost none of its glow: rather, it has aged like fine wine.

Throughout the album, the baritone Hartman, tenor saxophonist Coltrane (also known as Trane) and his peerless rhythm trio - pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones - make music that seems to be so in-the-moment, so up-close-and-personal, that it conjures, upon first hearing, a sense of shared intimacy. Hartman's voice embodies masculine maturity, and here it is cushioned by filigreed piano accompaniment, rhythms brushed lightly with implication, basslines so soft they go unnoticed, beguiling saxophone solos and murmured obbligati. Those are the seductive attributes of Coltrane/Hartman. When used as background music in conjunction with low lights and late-night cocktails, the recording is like a charming gift that proves the giver is truly in touch with the recipient's desires.

Coltrane/Hartman is unique in jazz history as the only recording on which Coltrane, the most relentlessly experimental and individual member of the '60s jazz generation, collaborated with a singer. It is also the performance with which Hartman secured his enduring reputation. Considering the somewhat off-the-cuff way the production came about, Coltrane/Hartman could be considered an anomaly, a lucky accident, or kismet. The chances of anyone consciously planning and executing such an album are akin to those of an arranged marriage igniting into a passionate inferno on the wedding night: slim to none. No, this is how masterpieces - and, incidentally, most long-term relationships - are born: from the unpredictable confluence of disparate circumstances.

When a project with a singer, any singer, was first proposed to Coltrane, it was posited as something of a retreat from his recent stylistic developments. Having emerged from journeyman anonymity in the mid-'50s to a spotlit position as a featured player with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Trane had, in 1960, scored an unexpected jazz hit with his soprano saxophone recasting of 'My Favorite Things', and had established his mastery of the tenor sax by racing through complex chord progressions on his original compositions such as 'Giant Steps', recorded for Atlantic Records.

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Howard Mandel