As you hear this remarkable recording of a 1974 live performance by Johnny Hartman at New York's Town Hall, you'll easily understand why Hartman was John Coltrane's favorite vocalist and much respected by other jazz players.
His voice is truly a musical instrument. As a result, he not only has the jazz pulse, the rhythmic flow of time but he is also able to subtly change and adapt his sound and dynamics as an unusually skillful horn player would.
And when, on this session, his fellow musicians are of the mutually attentive caliber Johnny Hartman is fully a member of the band, not just fronting it.
This was Johnny Hartman's last concert - he died in 1983 - and this is one of his very few live recordings. Live recordings preserve the very essence of the life force that is jazz.
Hearing Hartman so alive on all of these tracks brings new dimensions to the lyrics. He infuses the lyrics with his own memories.
Another advantage of this live recording is that it illuminates Johnny Hartman's easeful way of relating to his listeners between songs.
"I'm a saloon singer" he says humorously and proudly on this recording,”… and saloon singers drink and smoke a lot”. So was Frank Sinatra and both bring the listener right into the song because saloon singers also light up the memories of the audience.
The week of this concert was also the week Duke Ellington died. Johnny pays tribute to him: "Everything has its beginning and its end. Be thankful that you were a part of it." Of Duke and others who have gone, Hartman says: “I was most fortunate to have known these people, I had that privilege; one of the most beautiful things in my life."
He then precedes Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" by saying of Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's closest associate, that this extraordinarily sophisticated evocation of a twilight mood was written by Strayhorn when he was only 16 years old. "I did it with John Coltrane." He says.
It was part of the John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman recording and became a classic version of this intensely introspective song. This performance is even more riveting because Johnny is telling the story to a live audience, not just to a recording engineer.
Johnny never engaged in what used to be called "showboating" – using attention getting devices that were marginal to the song. He became the song, and as with "Lush Life," he possessed it, and it possessed him.
During his career, Johnny came out of Chicago to sing with Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Erroll Garner, and on his own. Musicians were very much aware of his nonpareil qualities, and this recording should also inform-and delight-present and future listeners. The music is timeless, and so is the pleasure it brings. - Nat Hentoff