Friday, October 14, 2011

McCoy Tyner & Jose James: The Coltrane-Hartman Project live in California

Tyner Does Coltrane and Hartman
by Andrew Gilbert for San Jose Mercury News

October 13, 2011

John Coltrane is best remembered as jazz's quintessential spiritual seeker, an indomitable improviser whose epic quest drew him steadily into uncharted musical realms.

But among the many enduring albums he recorded for Impulse! in the 1960s with his classic quartet, one particular collaboration stands out as an island of yearning romanticism amid Coltrane's stoic laments, ecstatic prayers, beatific benedictions and cross-cultural investigations. Recorded in 1963, "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman" ranks among jazz's greatest albums by a male singer, a session that ensured that the velvet smooth bass crooner wouldn't be forgotten.

Nearly half a century later, pianist McCoy Tyner, the musician around whom Coltrane built his epochal quartet, is touring with a project inspired by the Hartman album, featuring the prodigious saxophonist Chris Potter and rising vocal star Jose James in the title roles. As Tyner recalls the original session, he hadn't heard Hartman sing much, though Coltrane had played with him back in the late 1940s when they were both members of Dizzy Gillespie's big band.

"John was more familiar with him, but I really enjoyed that particular session," says Tyner, 72, who brings the Coltrane-Hartman project to Kuumbwa for two shows Saturday and to Herbst Theatre on Sunday as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. "The thing about John Coltrane was that he was very lyrical. He played like a vocalist."

Coltrane could sing through his horn with unsurpassed lyricism, but Tyner has never pursued a project of his own with a singer. Coming up as a teenager, he worked with various vocalists around Philadelphia, but once he hit the road with Trane, his days as freelance accompanist were over (well, if you don't count his stint with Ike and Tina Turner in the early 1970s). Noting that singers have always inspired him, Tyner says that he keeps three photos over his desk: Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.

"The human voice is a wonderful instrument when you get someone who's got some experience, who understands how they want to phrase and what the vocal chords are about," Tyner says. "I look at Jose like a horn, that's how I accompany. I lay things down on the piano, and I listen. You've got to open your ears. You have to really color it and make it interesting."

In the project's first incarnation earlier this year, Eric Alexander held down the tenor sax chair, but James is the only singer who's been involved (bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Joe Farnsworth round out the band). Born some 15 years after the Coltrane quartet recorded with Hartman, he has listened to the album countless times, absorbing the relaxed, effortless phrasing on Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful" and Rodgers and Hart's "You Are Too Beautiful."

Given that his timbre bears a striking resemblance to Hartman's, it's not surprising James would find himself drawn to the crooner. He never imagined that one day he would get a call inviting him to perform the songs from the landmark album with one of its creators.

"It's pretty insane," says James, 33. "I love the Hartman album. It's probably my favorite vocal jazz album of all time. That's the only thing that Trane did with a vocalist, so it really stands out."

While there are more extreme examples of brilliant male jazz singers falling through the cracks (Jimmy Scott, Jackie Paris and Andy Bey were all criminally under-recorded in their 30s and 40s), Hartman's relative obscurity is hard to square with his sumptuous voice, good looks and suave stage persona.

His stature and visibility have slowly increased since his death at 60 in 1983, starting when Clint Eastwood featured several Hartman recordings on the soundtrack of his 1995 film "Bridges of Madison County." Kurt Elling, who's in no danger of falling prey to the male jazz singer's curse, recorded his own tribute inspired by the Hartman-Coltrane album "Dedicated to You" (Concord Jazz), a sumptuous ballad-laden program recorded live at Lincoln Center that earned him a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album last year.

The Hartman project isn't James' first effort to tackle the Coltrane canon. In 2009, he and pianist Jef Neve were invited to a major theater in Brussels to premiere "Facing East: The Music of John Coltrane," a project featuring James' original lyrics for classic Trane tunes and new arrangements of standards famously interpreted by the saxophonist. At the time, he couldn't come to licensing terms with Coltrane's estate, so he never recorded the material.

"I was young and didn't want to give up all my publishing, so I didn't release any of that stuff," James says. "I have about 20 songs I've written material for, some set lyrics to his solos, like 'Equinox,' but mostly based on the melodies.

"I'm still thinking of putting together a whole Trane album, but everything has to be right."
McCoy Tyner Trio with Jose James and Chris Potter. When: 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday. Where: Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets: $35, 831-427-2227, . Also: 7 p.m. Sunday, Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, $30-$75, (866) 920-5299,

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