Monday, April 6, 2009

April 6: Johnny Hartman, "I Just Dropped By To Say Hello"

Artist: Johnny Hartman
Year: 1963
Label: Impulse!

One of the problems surrounding the high number of great vocalists in the 1940's, 50's, and 60's is that some of the finest inevitably get lost in the shuffle. When it comes to defining the word "smooth" in the vocal sense, few fill the role greater than Johnny Hartman. His elegant, resonant voice is vastly superior to that of his contemporaries, as well as nearly every crooner that followed. Having honed his skills in the 1940's with some of the greatest big bands in history, Hartman did not release a solo record until halfway through the 1950's. Through each of his albums are nothing short of wonderful, his 1963 release, I Just Dropped By To Say Hello is a flawless, mellow masterpiece.

Bringing the same sort of smooth, yet strong vocal performance, Johnny Hartman very much follows in the mood set by artists like Billy Eckstine and Jimmy Rushing. Having spent time in the legendary big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines, Hartman was nearly a decade into his career before releasing his first solo record. As his sophomore release with Impulse! Records, I Just Dropped By To Say Hello was Johnny Hartman's first release after his legendary collaboration with John Coltrane. Following the Coltrane record by just a few short months, I Just Dropped By To Say Hello was produced by a music legend in his own right, Bob Thiele. Having produced records for the likes of Big Joe Turner, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and Buddy Holly, Thiele and Hartman met during the Coltrane/Hartman sessions.

Drummer Elvin Jones, who may be best known for his work with Coltrane, accompanies Hartman throughout the record, as does pianist Hank Jones and bassist Milt Hinton. With a handful of other musicians filling in gaps here and there, the music is subtle, swinging when necessary, but mostly just playing a perfect background for Hartman's unparalleled voice. I Just Dropped By To Say Hello often spotlights the brilliant work of Jones, especially with his pristine playing on the records' title track. The album also features a few appearances by acclaimed tenor sax player Illinois Jacquet, who had been a star with the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. With such an all-star lineup, it is amazing that the record still somehow manages to "fly below the radar" more than fifty years after its release.

One truly cannot say enough about how faultless a voice you'll find in Johnny Hartman. From slow, tranquil jazz ballads to lightly swinging tunes, to songs with more of a pop appeal, Hartman perfectly presents each of the eleven songs on I Just Dropped By To Say Hello. Though always the focus of each song, Hartman almost duets with Jacquet's sex playing, as well as the piano work of Jones. Intermixing perfectly with his equally talented backing musicians, the album is flawless, and the band sounds as if they'd been playing together for decades. Understanding his vocal range, Hartman delivers some of the most commanding baritone singing ever recorded. Truth be told, once you've heard the talent and soul of Johnny Hartman, an overwhelming majority of the "famous" crooners of the time simply pale in comparison.

Performing many of the standards of the day, many still speculate that Hartman would have conquered the world had it not been for the rampant racism throughout the music scene and country at the time Hartman was rising as a star. With unquestionable talent, Hartman's velvet voice remains unparalleled to this day. The credentials of Johnny Hartman read like a "who's who" of the big band and jazz scenes of the 1940's, 50's, and 60's, yet as a singer, Hartman remains relatively unknown outside of the scene itself. Cool, smooth, yet undeniably strong, Johnny Hartman's voice is beyond comparison, and he himself is one singer with whom everyone should be familiar. If you want to hear what is unquestionably one of the most amazing vocalists ever, get a copy of I Just Dropped By To Say Hello, sit back, and enjoy.

Standout tracks: "In The Wee Small Hours," "If I'm Lucky," and "I Just Dropped By To Say Hello."

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