If love is one of the most common themes in song, love songs that stretch beyond simple declarations, admitting a type of defeat in the face of defining such an emotion, are remarkably rare. In the past weeks soundstreamsunday has featured Nick Drake and Lal Waterson, who each spun their songs about love from a point of deep uncertainty. So, on then, this week, to disappointment and devastation. It would be hard to name a song as beautifully crushing as John Coltrane’s and Johnny Hartman’s reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” an ode to unrequited love amidst a wash of “jazz and cocktails,” from the only album the duo made. Recorded in 1963, during Coltrane’s legendary run at Impulse! Records, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is a one-off, remarkable in the careers of both men, one a premier saxophone player of his time and the other a largely unknown but extraordinary vocalist and interpreter of jazz standards. In itself the concept was business-as-usual: a large part of twentieth-century jazz music up to this time consisted of runs through the “American Songbook” of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Porter, Berlin, et al. This pairing, however, stood out. Coltrane was moving fast at this point in his career, and Impulse! gave him the leeway to pursue concept records in a jazz recording industry that was still entrenched in the robber baron tactics that enriched all but the actual musicians (even the greatest players rarely got more than a day or two in the studio to produce an album’s worth of material). For his part, Hartman’s smooth baritone gave the sessions a focus on the lyric, and while Coltrane’s horn gave Hartman’s almost-lounge vocalizing a distinct edge, Hartman balanced the soloist’s tendency to go long (in 1958, Coltrane recorded another classic, but 14-minute version, of “Lush Life”), while his voice filled a gap you otherwise wouldn’t think about when listening to Coltrane’s other work. The result was six songs on an album clocking in at an economical 31 minutes. Every one of the songs is generous, and the musicians (also including Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, all from Coltrane’s band and all legends in their own right) support a mood, literally set forth in the last song on the record, “Autumn Serenade,” of turning leaves, fading light, a cold snap. “Lush Life” is the album’s peak, a drinker’s guide to lost love, it’s final statement “Romance is mush, stifling those who strive, I’ll live a lush life, in some small dive, And there I’ll be while I rot with the rest, Of those whose lives are lonely too,” rendered, knowingly but without a hint of irony, as smooth jazz. Way ahead of its time.
*Photo above by Joe Alper: John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, and Elvin Jones, 1963.