A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Welcome to our series highlighting the music we have here at Thomas Ford Memorial Library. Each week of 2013 we will discuss one of our favorite songs from the collection. Classical or Country, Hip-Hop or Heavy Metal, we’ll be blogging for every taste.
The first time I heard this album I was taken aback. Here was my jazz hero, Trane, the saxophone titan I knew from Live at the Village Vanguard and Giant Steps, the squalling, squaking, earthshaking sonic adventurer I knew from Ascension and Interstellar Space, and he was playing this 93.9 Lite FM music. What was this crap?
Of course, I was about fifteen years old and my judgement was seriously impaired by an inexplicable need for the loud and raucous. While that need hasn’t entirely left me (free jazz Coltrane is still, and will forever be my favorite Coltrane), I did find my way back to this album a few years later, and with a more level head. It is a masterpiece, and the trick to understanding it is thinking of it as Johnny Hartman’s album featuring the John Coltrane Quartet, and not as just another Coltrane set.
“Lush Life” is the album’s centerpiece, and to my mind one of the knock-down-drag-out greatest vocal jazz performances ever. Billy Strayhorn’s lyrics are the somewhat seedy tale of a world weary narrator’s broken heart. They’re beautiful lyrics, but wordy. It’s not hard to go wrong singing them. But in Hartman’s voice they sound so natural. He puts a believable personality behind them, and lets their wordiness go to a truly emotive place.
Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness.
I thought for a while that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me.
Ah yes, I was wrong.
Again, I was wrong.
In Hartman’s version that repeated “I was wrong” is heartbreaking. It’s sung with head hung low, sung into an empty glass at a dive bar. It’s simply masterful.
But Strayhorn’s lyrics and Hartman’s voice are the more obvious strong points here. Don’t ignore the quartet. McCoy Tyner’s piano is the soul of the recording, framing and nuancing Hartman. Coltrane’s solo restates the melody with a double time feeling that brings to mind the seedy nightlife our narrator is describing. Elvin Jones’ drums and Jimmy Garrison’s bass are all driftless atmosphere under Hartman’s voice, but they’re also the frenetic pulse under Trane’s solo.
It all comes together and makes one of my favorite moments in recorded music. How my teenage self let this perfectly written, perfectly performed, perfectly recorded track pass by unnoticed is now beyond comprehension.
Review by Matthew