John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
Johnny Hartman I Just Dropped by to Say Hello
inger Johnny Hartman began recording in the mid-1940s, his velvety voice making him a natural with dusky ballads. In the early 1960s, shortly after Creed Taylor founded Impulse! Records, Hartman recorded his first set for the label. But 1963 would prove to be his very best year in terms of recorded output. In March, he collaborated with labelmate John Coltrane on the bona fide classic that shares their names, following in October with I Just Dropped by to Say Hello. The lineups for both recordings were chock-full of jazz royalty. Coltrane brought along members of the quintet -- McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums -- that would record A Love Supreme a little over a year later, while Hank Jones on piano Illinois Jacquet on sax, Kenny Burrell or Jim Hall on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass and Elvin Jones on drums put the music of I Just Dropped by to Say Hello in more-than-capable hands.
The combination of a smooth-toned vocalist and the most muscular and distinctive sax player in jazz history seems like an odd marriage, but complementariness is an important ingredient in any successful relationship. Singers are in the spotlight except when a musician of Coltrane's magnetism is part of the session. There is sympathy of approach here, not the sense that each song is a mere volley of riffs and themes. And some of the readings are definitive. The version of "My One and Only Love" preserved in my memory is this one, Coltrane's sax intensifying the feeling of the lyrics. McCoy Tyner's tasteful rhythmic underpinning could have earned him billing in the album's title. This is truly one of the recordings that must be in any serious jazz collection.
While I Just Dropped by to Say Hello is billed as a Hartman session, he doesn't have the kind of voice that overwhelms any number, so there remains an abundant sense of collaboration. While tempos vary, they all achieve Hartman time: an unhurried pace set by his calm, articulated phrasing. Most of the numbers on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman are more than five minutes long, but there is none that length here, and most, including the charming "Sleepin' Bee" by Harold Arlen and writer Truman Capote, are less than three.
Rudy Van Gelder recorded both sets, and they display Hartman's voice amidst a mildly reverberant soundfield, which the 45rpm format exposes to its very limits. Piano is captured particularly well, preserving its timbre and delicate ambience. The 180-gram LPs, pressed at Pallas in Germany, are exceptionally quiet, exposing the texture of Hartman's voice and delicate dynamic gradations of Coltrane's achingly beautiful playing all the better. With John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, I did notice a couple of anomalies: background hiss not present between cuts (or on the digital versions of the album) and faint tape bleed-through between "Dedicated to You" and "My One and Only Love" on side two -- what sounds like a throbbing horn.
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman exists in various CD, SACD and vinyl versions. Does the world really need another? When it's this revealing of what's on the master tape, I think so. I Just Dropped by to Say Hello is more than a mere companion piece. It's the recording you'll want to play once the numbers from its renowned predecessor are permanently burned into your memory.
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