Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Voice of Johnny Hartman, 1963

As wonderful as the 1963 album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is (undoubtedly one of the all-time classic jazz vocal albums) my introduction to the unique sound of Johnny Hartman's voice came via another record, one he cut for Impulse two years later, in 1965—The Voice That Is! As soon as I heard it, I was hooked, and I only discovered Hartman's timeless collaboration with Trane a little later and was similarly awestruck. Hartman was essentially a jazz-inflected pop singer, a stylistic heir to Billy Eckstine by way of Frank Sinatra, to whom the title of The Voice That Is unequivocally alludes. The smooth, deep voice reminds us of Mr. B., while his way with a ballad is clearly influenced by the young Mr. S. Indeed, until he cut his celebrated LP with John Coltrane, Hartman had been trying to make it primarily as a balladeer, straddling the fence between jazz and pop, as we can hear on his excellent (and quite underrated) debut album, Songs from the Heart (Bethlehem, 1955), with Ralph Sharon on piano and Howard McGhee on trumpet. Before that, he had worked with Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie, and up until signing with Impulse in the early 1960s, he had made records with strings and with the likes of Erroll Garner and Perez Prado. But then he co-led that famous session with Coltrane, and everything changed for him: all of a sudden, Hartman's star began to rise, but he was seen primarily as a jazzman now, not a pop singer, which opened many doors for him, but at the same time closed some others. There were many venues that began booking him as a jazz vocalist, but that left him out of other venues that wouldn't get anywhere near a singer associated with jazz.

Fortunately, the success of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman prompted Impulse to record Hartman more extensively, and The Voice That Is, cut at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in September 1964, is actually his third outing for the label. The LP was the product of two different sessions, both produced by Bob Thiele. The first one took place on September 22 and finds Hartman accompanied by Hank Jones on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Richard Davis on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums. The setting here is rather similar to what we can hear on his previous album, I Just Dropped By to Say Hello, and the songs are mostly intimate ballads ("My Ship," "These Foolish Things," "It Never Entered My Mind") that Hartman handles with ease and elegance. There's a mid-tempo number, "The More I See You," that proves Hartman can swing when he wants to, and a lovely version of Bill Evans's "Waltz for Debby" (Gene Lees's beautiful lyrics sound tailor-made for Hartman) that is one of the highlights of the album and makes me wish that the vocalist had done an LP with Evans, like Tony Bennett and Monica Zetterlund did. The same quartet appears again on the second session, held on September 24, except for the fact that Bob Hammer, who handles the arrangements as well, replaces Hank Jones on piano. Also, the lineup is augmented with Dick Hafer on reeds, Phil Kraus on marimba, Howard Collins on guitar, and Willie Rodriguez on percussion, and so the rhythms become more unusually exotic, as on the catchy "The Day the World Stopped Turning," which features a beautiful flute solo by Hafer, and Henry Mancini's lesser-known "A Slow Hot Wind," whose very charming melody is subtly punctuated by Kraus's marimba. On this session Hartman took a stab at more contemporary songs, such as Ennio Morricone's "Funny World," Bart Howard's "Let Me Love You," and "Sunrise, Sunset," from Fiddler on the Roof, which closes the album. Frank Loesser's "Joey. Joey, Joey" is another good example of a tune that doesn't usually turn up on vocal jazz albums (Sammy Davis, Jr. did it as a duet with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, for instance) but then The Voice That Is simply isn't a typical vocal jazz record. Hartman made a few more recordings in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, before his passing in 1983, including some excellent Coltrane-inspired sessions in Japan, yet he sadly never achieved the kind of recognition that his talent should have warranted. Luckily, we still have his albums, and The Voice That Is remains one of his freshest and most satisfying efforts.

Recommended Reading

The only book-length biography of Johnny Hartman currently available is Gregg Akkerman's excellent The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story (Scarecrow Press, 2012). You may find it here.

Johnny Hartman Online Discography

Mr. Akkerman and my friend Noal Cohen collaborated on a very thorough Johnny Hartman discography, which you may find here.

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