Johnny Hartman, This One’s for Tedi

Album of the Week, June 12, 2024

Singers are unique in that their instrument ages with them. For instance, Ron Carter’s bass has no less range than it did when he was a twenty-something playing with Miles. (A flawed comparison, I suppose, since you can hear the effects of age on brass and wind players as their lung capacity and embouchure age.) But with singers you can hear every effect of age on the instrument—even if the singer is as careful a performer as Johnny Hartman.

In 1980, fifteen hears after we last heard him, Hartman was 57 years old—not what you might consider “old” today, but you could definitely hear the almost 20 years of additional age in his voice. The phrases are less carefree, less burnished. And they’re shorter; one of the biggest impacts of his life on his instrument was the emphysema from years of smoking that would claim his life three years later, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. But they’re still recognizably Hartman, and the way he uses the low range of his voice for emphasis and turns a phrase into gold with dynamics and rubato is still as magical here—even if he leaves you anxious to hear how he’ll get some of the longer phrases across the finish line. The accompaniment is simple, with Lorne Lofsky (who would spend much of the subsequent decade performing with Oscar Peterson) on guitar, Chris Conner on bass, Craig “Buff” Allen on drums, and Tony Monte on piano and arranging. The recording was apparently the first all-digital recording (which was then a desirable thing!) to be made in Canada.

Hartman’s performance of the Alan Brandt/Bob Haymes standard “That’s All” displays some of the weaknesses of his voice as well as the remaining strengths. Hartman’s voice is less present the higher it climbs above the staff, and there is some minor inaccuracy in pitch in a few places. But his lower register is still rich and resonant, and the ensemble provides sympathetic backing that supports rather than overwhelms his voice, particularly from Lofsky’s guitar.

By contrast, his performance of the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is surer, and rendered infinitely cooler by Chris Conner’s walking bass line, which is his only accompaniment for the first verse. Monte gets in a solid verse of a piano solo, cuing up Hartman’s re-entry on the bridge. His swing at “we may never, never meet again” is loose and fluid, and his final “they can’t take that away from me,” which unexpectedly lands on the leading tone, leaving the question, and the chord, teasingly unresolved.

More I Cannot Wish You” (by Frank Loesser, from Guys and Dolls) has one of the most subtle and affecting performances on the album. With just Monte’s piano behind him, Hartman tells the story of an aging man wistfully wishing that his young beloved will find her own love and “strong arms to carry you away.” Paul McCartney, on his standards album (hilariously entitled Kisses on the Bottom), talked about this song as though it were sung by a father to his daughter. Perhaps; there’s an awful lot of regret in Hartman’s reading that suggests a different relationship.

Rodgers and Hart’s supple “Wait Til You See Her” might be the most accomplished of all the performances on the album. Monte’s piano keeps things moving through in a brisk 6/8, which Hartman’s voice nimbly dances through on the first verse. Lofsky’s solo sneaks in a deft quotation from Sonny Rollins’ “Valse Hot,” moving the arrangement quickly into Hartman’s reprise. It’s a delightful reading and shows that Hartman still had some fire in him.

Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” has been covered many different ways, including Kirsty MacColl’s cockeyed waltz (leading into the brilliant headlong swirl of the Pogues’ “Just One of Those Things”) on the Red Hot and Blue compilation. Hartman starts it as a tender ballad, then transitions it into a swinging waltz worthy of Sinatra.

Then I’ll Be Tired of You,” by Arthur Schwartz and “Yip” Harburg, gives away the central theme of the album as it starts side two: “If my throbbing heart/Should ever start repeating/That it is tired, tired of beating/Then I’ll be tired… then I’ll be tired of you.” It helps to know that Tedi was Hartman’s wife of many years. This is a deeply tender performance by the whole band. The performance seems tenderer in contrast to the more uptempo “It Could Happen to You” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke).

A contemporary review of the album in Fanfare noted that it featured a “haunting fresh rendition of ‘Send in the Clowns’ with a truly singular piano accompaniment by Monte,” and it’s hard to argue. This is one of the standards that I’ve always struggled with, having heard many hackneyed versions thanks to easy listening radio in the early 1980s, but here it’s truly affecting thanks to the depths of Hartman’s voice, his powerful rubato, and the accents from Monte’s piano.

You Stepped Out of a Dream,” by Nacio Herb Brown and Gus Kahn, brings the tempo back up, featuring a briskly brilliant guitar solo from Lofsky. Here Hartman seems weightless, especially on the line “Have you all to myself, alone and apart/Out of a dream, safe in my heart.” Only the slightly abrupt end of his final sustained note gives away the great singer’s vocal challenges.

The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is the most challenging song, lyrically, on the album. Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s ballad could be read of a piece with the great Sinatra dark ballads on In the Wee Small Hours or No One Cares. But Hartman’s voice imbues not only pathos into the song (“Sad young men are growing old/That’s the saddest part”) but also benediction (“Misbegotten moon shine for sad young men/Let your gentle light guide them home again”), before the final “All the sad young men” betrays a slight smile in Hartman’s voice as he looks back at the inevitable dramas of youth from the perspective of age.

Hartman’s passing came at something of an inflection point in jazz song, as the old guard of singers were retiring, passing the torch, and passing on. My highly selective survey jumps forward next time to some folks who are carrying the art along in some very distinctive ways.

You can hear this week’s album here:

Johnny Hartman, The Voice That Is!

Album of the Week, June 15, 2024

Johnny Hartman, as we’ve discussed before, was essentially plucked from obscurity by John Coltrane in March of 1963 and catapulted to the next tier of jazz prominence—not exactly to stardom but at least much closer to being a household name. Among other effects on his life, the success of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman got him a brief recording contract on Impulse! Records, this week’s album is the final entry in that series. Recorded in two separate sessions on September 22 and 24, 1964 at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, the sessions were backed by the Hank Jones quartet and by an octet arranged by Bob Hammer.

The More I See You,” a Mack Gordon/Harry Warren song from the film Diamond Horseshoe and subsequently a jazz standard. is one of the quartet sessions. Hartman’s cheery, easy delivery is underscored by Hank Jones’ piano and the breezy guitar of Barry Galbraith. The performance stays mostly in Hartman’s mid-range, only occasionally dipping into the velvet end of the baritone that made his performances with Coltrane so memorable. But there’s still some signs of the distinctive performance style, especially his tendency to dip down into the low end of his range (rather than the high) to emphasize a musical idea on the last chorus.

The jacket calls the next track, an octet performance, “the first vocal interpretation” of “A Slow Hot Wind,” a Henry Mancini track with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. The track features a percussive idiophone part, originally performed on the lujon and here played on the marimba by Phil Kraus, and a vocal line anchored in that deep end where Hartman’s voice is so effective. The second chorus after the sax solo is brilliantly phrased: “There in the shade with a cool drink … waiting…”

Bart Howard, who authored the next track “Let Me Love You,” also wrote “Fly Me to the Moon,” and the walking bass intro shows it. This is Hartman in upbeat swinging mode, and it’s pleasant enough, but doesn’t show off his strengths nearly as well as the next track. “Funny World (the theme from Malamondo)” is an Ennio Morricone composition given a gentle exotic tinge by the octet, especially the maracas and other “Latin percussion” by Willie Rodriguez and by Howard Collins’ guitar. Hartman’s entrance reveals that the tune is actually in 6/8, and more surprises lie ahead, including a brilliant flute line from Dick Hafer and the brilliant dip down to the tonic in Hartman’s bridge as he sings “Funny thing, I should choose you.” This song was later performed by Astrud Gilberto, and it sounds at once idiomatically Brazilian and naturally Hartman in this performance.

I can’t listen to “These Foolish Things,” by Jack Strachey and Holt Marvell with Harry Link, without thinking of the perfume ad for “Nostalgia” in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ The Watchmen, thanks to the lyric “Silk stockings thrown aside/Dance invitations/Oh how the ghost of you clings.” But that’s not the most jaw-dropping lyrical moment in the song; that would have to be: “You came/You saw/You conquered me… When you did that to me/I knew somehow this had to be/The winds of march that made my heart a dancer/A telephone that rings but who’s to answer…” It’s a brilliant ballad performance by Hartman throughout, with sensitive timing and that brilliant voice.

My Ship,” by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Ira Gershwin from the musical Lady in the Dark, is another great ballad given greater scope by Hartman’s lyric timing. When he sings “the sun sits high/in a sapphire sky,” it’s a perfect word painting. He starts “the sun” a fourth below the tonic, comes up a whole step, and then jumps an octave on “sits high” but is still in his upper middle range thanks to that low start. He never uncorks his high range until the end: “If the ship I sing/Doesn’t also bring/My own true love to me.”

The Day The World Stopped Turning,” by Buddy Kaye and Phillip Springer, is more richly orchestrated, with a flute part that seems to flutter out of tune for a half a measure until the rest of the arrangement shows that the whole band is shifting through key changes with every measure. The gentle Latin flavor is here in spades, but the song comes and goes quickly. The Frank Loesser standard “Joey, Joey, Joey,” by contrast, is given a one minute intro by just Hartman and Rodriguez, the former singing through the verse phrase by phrase and receiving answers from Rodriguez’s percussion. When the chorus comes, Hartman shifts into a slow samba, then back into the free unaccompanied rhythm of the second verse.

Sunrise, Sunset” is surely one of the better-known (and newest) standards in this collection. Written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock for Fiddler on the Roof, the song here opens with guitar alone accompanying Hartman on the verse. Hartman unsurprisingly finds new depths of pathos even in this saddest of the songs from the musical; his reading of “When did he grow to be … so tall” wrecks me. On the verse the rest of the band is subtle, with careful addition of marimba and bass to the guitar so as to not crowd the great voice. It’s a devastating performance.

Waltz for Debby,” the Bill Evans classic here given lyrics by Evans’ friend Gene Lees, continues the theme of childhood in a somewhat happier though still nostalgic vein. His line “they will miss her I know/but then so will I” is given more bounce and less poignancy by the drums of Osie Johnson, who seems to skitter and bounce along the outlines of the great tune.

Hartman closes the album with “It Never Entered My Mind,” the Rodgers and Hart classic from Higher and Higher. It’s a bluesy ballad written for Hartman’s strengths with the dip down below the tonic on “If you scorn me/I’ll sing a loser’s prayer again.” His time-stopping cadenza on the closing “It never entered my mind” is breathtaking. I find myself flipping the record (or, honestly, just replaying the album on Apple Music) to hear it all again.

After this album, the singer moved to Impulse’s parent label, ABC-Paramount, to try to reach a wider audience. He was dropped after his second album for ABC in 1967 flopped, and recorded albums for several smaller labels in the following decade-plus. Next week we’ll listen to a studio recording from the end of his career.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Album of the Week, February 17, 2024

When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to have a tenor voice. My dad had a beautiful tenor voice that could ring the room. I listened to a lot of Sting, whose tenor voice seemed to dwell perpetually in a higher octave (and whose songs garnered me some much welcomed attention when I performed them). … And then l went to college and picked up John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman at Plan 9 Records, and decided maybe being a baritone was more desirable after all.

Coltrane and Hartman had both played in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the late 1940s, but their time didn’t overlap; they shared a stage once in Harlem at the Apollo Theatre in 1950; but it’s still not known exactly how the singer came to Coltrane’s attention. But Trane has told us why he recorded with him. The Paris Review recounts a 1966 interview with the saxophonist, who told the interviewer, Frank Kofksky: “Johnny Hartman—a man that I’d had stuck up in my mind somewhere—I just felt something about him, you know, I don’t know what it was. And I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear, you know, so I looked him up and did that other one, see.”

That sound, incidentally, might be better thought of as crooning than jazz vocals. Colgate University professor Michael Coyle places Hartman in the crooning tradition, as a follower of Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée, and points out his innovation was the ability to stretch the melodic line, introducing space and drama into the melodies. I dispute the point a bit—Hartman’s tone is solid and his control is completely impeccable—but there’s no doubt he’s a much more subtle singer than the performers who came before him.

That point is brought home in “They Say It’s Wonderful,” the first track on the album. After a brief introduction from McCoy Tyner, Hartman sings “They say that falling in love is wonderful.” But that quote is insufficient to convey the subtlety of his phrasing, as he leans on “say,” ever so briefly pauses after “that,” elongates “love,” and diminuendos ever so slightly on “wonderful” while still holding the note, creating a suspension on the seventh of the chord and making you hang on his words to hear what comes next. It’s a masterclass in vocal control, and it’s just the first phrase. Trane stays under Hartman’s line, providing accents at the end of lines but otherwise staying out of the way. When he takes a solo, he picks up some of the vocal inflections and phrasing of the singer, elaborating them a little with some of his characteristic flourishes but mostly staying in the pocket. While there are traces of the technically brilliant sheets of sound, they’re constrained within the boundaries of the melody, serving as accents rather than the main thrust of the sound. Hartman returns for a tag of the bridge and takes a breathtaking break in the rhythm, seeming to soar weightless over the band for a moment.

Hartman opens “Dedicated to You” with a simple declaration of the first quatrain of the melody, and Trane picks it up, playing the rest of the verse as a straight melody. At almost exactly the halfway point, Hartman picks it up seamlessly, singing it straight until the coda when he repeats the words “dedicated to you” as an out-of-time riff. It’s a sincere and simple, but not simple-minded performance. “My One and Only Love” is flipped around, with Trane taking the first verse with the quartet, taking a rubato measure to close the melody out, then inserting two bars in which the band seems to hover over a suspended fifth in the bass. Hartman enters after that moment of suspension and seems to restart all the clocks, taking the verse in time and stretching the meter in the final chorus just ever so slightly. The band returns to the suspended chords for a final two measures before resolving the tune.

Lush Life” was reportedly a late addition to the track list; apparently Trane and Hartman were on their way to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in a car when Nat King Cole’s version of the tune came on the radio, and Hartman decided on the spot to perform it. Trane of course had performed the tune years before, but you can definitely hear traces of Cole’s version in Hartman’s brisk introduction, which moves unsentimentally through the verse, accompanied only by Tyner, until he sings “washed away/by too many through the day” and holds “too” for an extra beat or two, accentuating the melancholy under the surface joys of the lush life. When the chorus begins, the rest of the quartet joins but stays in the background. Garrison’s bass spells out the roots of the chords and accentuates the changes with subtle arpeggios, and follows Hartman’s chromatic ascending scale on “those whose lives are lonely too”; Tyner continues the ascending scale after Hartman stops and Trane picks up the solo seamlessly, playing a breathless double-time through the melody until he gets to the final chorus, when Hartman rejoins to close it out. It’s a briefer version of the tune than Trane’s 1958 magnum opus but seems to hit all the high points.

Famously, Hartman claimed that the whole album was recorded in a single take, except “You Are Too Beautiful,” which had to be restarted when Elvin Jones dropped a brush. It’s a great story, if untrue (alternate takes are available for each track). The Rodgers and Hart tune gallops all over the octave, but Hartman makes it seem easy. Tyner gets the solo, playing through the tune as a syncopated stretto against Jones’ shuffle until the final four bars when he matches velocity with the main tune once again. In the reprise, Hartman’s careful use of legato is apparent in the first phrase, where he enters from above and uses a little melisma around the edges of the tune; his final phrase holds the supertonic just long enough for you to notice before he resolves.

The final track is, as far as I know, the only rumba that the classic Coltrane quartet ever recorded, so of course Trane deconstructs it in his solo. “Autumn Serenade” opens with the bass doubling Tyner, playing a rumba rhythm under Hartman. When Trane joins he turns the melody into a series of cascading sixteenth notes in groups of three, pausing between each and playing with the modal melody. This is the one place on the album where you can hear some of Trane’s searching runs, and the end of his solo feels as though it could keep going on that search forever, but he pulls back just enough. At the end, Hartman sings “serenade” and holds the top note while Trane plays a few more of the trios of sixteenth notes, as though turning away from the resolution to continue the search.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was the third of Trane’s great ballads albums of the early 1960s, following Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Ballads. Whatever the great saxophonist felt he had to prove to his critics or to himself, he appears to have done it with this album; the following recordings would return to some of the wilder searching we heard on Evenings at the Village Gate, but with a new sense of melodic core. We’ll hear one of the first outings of this next phase of Trane’s career next time.

You can listen to today’s album here: