Johnny Hartman is a true enigma in the history of this music. An enormous talent, with an approach that straddled the jazz and pop worlds without breaking out in either, Hartman often slips through the cracks in our perspective on the vocal evolution of jazz-perhaps because the concept of a crossover artist carries with it some commercial taint. More’s the pity that Hartman never enjoyed the commercial success that might have been his due. His gift lay in his vocal instrument, and in an honesty that blooms in every note: Hartman believed in what he sang. The conviction that informs each performance in this set gives Hartman a quality that hovers somehow between naivete and savoir faire-an understanding both of the way things should be and the way they really are. The 25 years covered by these recordings seem to have touched Hartman lightly: his confidence grew and his interpretive artistry matured, but the magnificent voice seems somehow impervious to time (if not entirely immune to the vagaries of record production). One hears in that voice the links to Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole, and a few tricks that Joe Williams picked up. One can understand what attracted Earl hines and Dizzy Gillespie (represented by two big band tracks. The peak of the recordings here are the two tracks from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, in particular the inspirational “Lush Life.” But there is plenty here to consider and enjoy, including four tracks with Hank Jones at the piano, and three fronting a Gerald Wilson big band. And through it all, shines an optimism and vitality that has never been matched.
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