Thursday, September 15, 2011

September 15: Johnny Hartman, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning"

Artist: Johnny Hartman
Song: "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning"
Album: I Just Dropped By To Say Hello
Year: 1963

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One of the more frustrating aspects found throughout music history is the way that certain artists who are far more talented are overshadowed by others for often inexplicable reasons.  There are countless cases of this in almost every genre, but there has perhaps been no more obvious a situation than when one inspects the so-called "crooners" of the late 1950's and early 1960's.  Though there existed a wide array of phenomenal talents, many of them did not receive the credit and exposure they clearly deserved due to the presence of a handful of far less talented, but better connected performers.  While some may try and argue this as something different, the reality is that once one hears the sounds of the truly talented singers, the inferior skills of the others becomes abundantly clear, and there may be no finer an example than the voice of Johnny Hartman.  Without question one of the most pure and emotive singers in all of music history, there is a humble, delicate sound to every lyric which he sings, and once one experiences his fantastic talent, all other crooners seem rather pale in comparison.  Though Hartman only released a handful of albums during his career, they are all packed to the brim with extraorindary performances, and few moreso than his 1963 album, I Just Dropped By To Say Hello.  Showing off his entire range, the album is one of the greatest ever recorded, and there are few individual performances as moving or truly beautiful as one finds on Johnny Hartman's 1963 rendition of, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning."

From every angle, the entire work that is this take on the classic song is nothing short of definitive, and though countless artists have recorded their own version, none come even remotely close to the version found here.  In reality, there has rarely been as perfect a balance between a singer and his backing band as one finds on "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," as there is no question that everyone involved in this recording understands just what a delicate atmosphere is necessary for this song.  Pianist Hank Jones has rarely sounded better than he does here, providing almost a second vocal line for Hartman, as well as gently exploring some of the arrangements more subtle nuances.  The smooth, meandering path he takes is nothing short of perfect, and one can easily picture he and Hartman performing in a small piano on a cold winter evening.  This approach is mirrored by bassist Milt Hinton, as he is able to extract an amazing level of mood from what stands as one of the most restrained and minimalist basslines in history.  Using his instrument to punctuate various musical moments, his performance is the very essence of balance within a song.  Guitarist Jim Hall slides effortlessly into the mix, lending ideal fills in some of the songs' "open spaces."  The band is rounded out by legendary drummer Elvin Jones, and it is his light, brushed cadence that gives "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" the ideal finishing touch, as the trio of musicians create what may very well be the greatest single mood ever captured on tape.

However, while one cannot overlook the brilliant work of the band on "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," there is never a question that the focus of the track is the absolutely beautiful vocal performance from Johnny Hartman.  Within the first few notes that he sings, it becomes instantly clear that not only does he have a complete understanding of the true spirit of the song, but that there are few singers from any point in history that can even remotely match the power and presence of his voice.  Easily working all across the vocal scale, Hartman has a deep sincerity within his voice that is rarely found elsewhere, and it is this honest, unassuming sound that becomes instantly unforgettable.  The depth and tenor of his singing is made all the more impressive by the fact that he is able to deliver such strong notes whilst not disturbing the fragile mood of the song, and he pushes it to even greater heights within his performance.  Though Hartman follows the logical progression of notes throughout the song, it is the small places where he holds a note or slides his voice that sets this version so far above others, and it is this take on "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" that solidifies him as one of the greatest vocalists in history.  The way in which Hartman is able to seamlessly blend his somber, blues-based voice into this quiet, graceful song is absolutely stunning to experience, and it remains a vocal performance of unparalleled impact.

In reality, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" was first recorded nearly a decade before the Hartman version emerged, and since that time, countless other performers have taken a shot at the song.  However, once one hears Johnny Hartman's rendition of it, all others quickly fall far below, and there is no question that this is the definitive take on the David Mann composition.  Yet history tends to forget this mind-blowing performance, citing the version by a far less talented performer as the one to seek out, and the truth of the matter is, when one compares the two recordings, the difference is almost laughable.  This reality is in many ways the finest example of the "problem" within the music industry, as once one experiences the voice of Johnny Hartman, there is no question that he was not given the promotion and accolades he deserved.  In every aspect, his singing is as close to perfection as one can find anywhere, and in both power and emotion, he easily outshines his commercially successful peers.  The way that he is able to match the mood of the band behind him not only shows his understanding of how to make a "complete" song, but it also serves as a contrast, showing how other singers were far more concerned with being the center of attention than they were in making a beautiful musical work.  Striking the ideal balance between musical superiority and a truly magnificent mood, there is no other recording in history that can match the power and presence of Johnny Hartman's 1963 version of the classic, ""In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning."

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