Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, "John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman"

Artist: John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
Album: John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
Year: 1963
Label: Impulse!

There are a number of albums over the course of music history that, once experienced, leave the listener questioning whether music can get any better than the album in question. Within that group, there are a select few that one can make a very good case that, "no, in fact, it cannot get any better." High atop this exclusive list of the finest recordings in history stands a collaboration between two of the greatest and most exalted artists that the world has ever seen. Surrounded by a top notch backing band, these two musicians are left free to let their talents shine like never before, and the resulting record soars far beyond terms like "magnificent" and "landmark." Both musicians were beyond accomplished by the time they entered the studio together, and many would argue that the album is even more stunning due to the fact that neither person had anything to prove. Their names alone demand the utmost respect, and truth be told, aside from the other, there are virtually no other musicians who are worthy to be spoken in the same breath. Though it most likely deserved to be one of the first albums reviewed here, I preferred to save it for a special occasion. So, on this, my thirtieth birthday, I present a review of one of my two favorite and most treasured albums of all time, the truly unsurpassed 1963 masterpiece of sonic artistry, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.

Truth be told, rarely has there been such a perfect pairing of musicians in the prime of their careers. Easily two of the most accomplished performers in their areas, there is clearly a chemistry between Coltrane and Hartman, and the resulting music is the true definition of the word "bliss." The pair had actually played together for quite some time, as they were both members of Dizzy Gillespie's band in the late 1940's, and their admiration of one another is solidified by the fact that Hartman stands as the only singer for whom Coltrane would lead a band. Strangely enough though, it was Coltrane requested that he and Hartman record and album together, though Hartman was hesitant, as he reportedly felt he was not "jazz enough" for Coltrane and thought their styles would clash. Standing in strong opposition to this idea is the fact that, when they finally entered the studio on March 7, 1963, they cut all but one song in a single take. The only reason that "You Are Too Beautiful" required a second take is due to the fact that drummer Elvin Jones dropped a drumstick during the first take. The fact that such musical perfection was accomplished in a single take on each of these tracks is a testament to the absolute genius, and undeniable chemistry of both Coltrane and Hartman. More to the point, the renditions of songs like "Lush Life" and "They Say It's Wonderful" found on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman are still widely considered to be the definitive versions of these classic songs. Each of the six songs on the album are absolutely fantastic, and when the album was re-released on CD in the stereo mixes of each song were included along with the fantastic, original mono versions.

As brilliant as Coltrane and Hartman are on every song, the three men playing along with them are equally fantastic, and one cannot overlook their contributions. Spending a majority of his career as a sideman as a pivotal member of Coltrane's famed quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner is absolutely stellar throughout John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman. Whether he is playing stunning solos, like on "You Are Too Beautiful," or almost dancing along with Hartman's voice, as he does on "Autumn Serenade," Tyner clearly understands the magnitude of the session, and he delivers at every turn. Another longtime Coltrane associate, bassist Jimmy Garrison, truly rises to the occasion and is simply fantastic throughout John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman. Taking his playing to the next level, the amazing grooves and touches he adds are absolutely wonderful, with the highlight of his playing also being on "Autumn Serenade." Rounding out the backing band as well as the rhythm section, drummer Elvin Jones plays lightly, yet masterfully on every song. These light touches perfectly accentuate each song, and it completes the picture as to why this grouping of musicians were so fantastic on every album on which they played. Providing an impeccable musical backbone, this trio of musicians are each legends in their own right, yet on John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, they prove that they are just as talented in the role of sidemen.

Throughout his career, John Coltrane went through a number of different, equally brilliant musical phases, and he proved that, regardless of the style, his talent was simply unsurpassed. The truth of the matter is, Coltrane has rarely played as beautifully, as soulfully, and in many ways, with as sympathetic a tone as is found on this recording. Whether it is his sad, yet gorgeous solos, like the one found on "My One And Only Love," or slightly brighter, meandering progressions like on "They Say It's Wonderful," Coltrane is absolutely stellar on every song, and it is by far one of his finest performances. The manner in which Coltrane almost trades licks and solos with Hartman is truly unprecedented, and this is the true embodiment of the undeniable chemistry between the two performers. This recording session actually marks the first time since 1956 that Johnny Hartman recorded, and it would serve as the beginning of the second phase of his career. As always, Hartman's voice is unequivocally stunning, and he has rarely sounded as clear and comfortable as he does throughout this album. Never having to push for volume or space, his tone is soft and relaxed, yet the majesty of his unparalleled voice shines on every single song. Showing off his entire vocal range on songs like "Dedicated To You," Hartman reasserts his case as one of the greatest voices in the history of music, and after experiencing this album, one will find it hard to argue the case for anyone else. Truly embodying everything it means to create a perfect recording, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman are simply phenomenal on every song found on this record, and the overall virtuosity of the album remains unsurpassed.

There are good albums, there are great albums, and then there are a precious few albums that go so far above and beyond greatness, that they almost defy classification. These select few records are truly timeless, and the music found therein remains unmatched in terms of sheer musicianship and impact. With the unrivaled talent level that was present for the recording of John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, it should be little surprise that the resulting album ranks among these preeminent albums, and the record is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical moments in history. The rapport between the five performers is undeniable, and the chemistry between Coltrane and Hartman remains unsurpassed in the decades since the albums' release. Backed by Coltrane's equally fantastic quartet, the two primary performers are given the space and support they need carry out their art to in ways in which they had not previously been able. With each of the three backing musicians also performing beyond their earlier recorded work, it is clear that they each grasp the overall magnitude of the recording session, as well as understanding their role within it and how they can best aid in this truly extraordinary recording. Also reaching beyond their previous efforts, both Coltrane and Hartman have never sounded better, and the album gives an amazing, rare glimpse into the true genius of both performers. Nearly forty years after its initial release, the stunning performances and flawless musicianship found on the one-off pairing of two of musics' most talented artists remains unrivaled and a stunning musical document. Standing high above the rest of recorded music, the 1963 album, John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman is a musical experience like no other and transcends musical tastes, making it one of the most elite and incomparable albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "They Say It's Wonderful," "Lush Life," and "Autumn Serenade."

No comments: