The Voice that Is!Impulse!/Universal Music/Analogue Productions CIPJ 74 SA
Format: Hybrid SACD

Musical Performance: ***1/2
Sound Quality: ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****

The posthumous reputation of jazz singer Johnny Hartman (1923-1983) got a boost in 1995, when Clint Eastwood chose some of his recordings for the soundtrack to The Bridges of Madison County. Hartman had never been a household name. Hardcore jazz fans probably know him best for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, the sole album by the saxophonist to feature a singer. Coltrane knew Hartman from their brief stints in Dizzy Gillespie’s late-1940s big band, and in 1963 he brought the singer to Impulse! Records, where Hartman would record two more LPs.

Producer Bob Thiele, who ran Impulse!, oversaw Hartman’s work there. The Voice That Is!, the singer’s third recording for the label, presented him with a quartet led by pianist Hank Jones backing him on five tracks, and a pianoless septet on the six remaining cuts. Jones had accompanied Hartman on his second Impulse! release, I Just Dropped By to Say Hello, and on All of Me, a 1956 effort for Bethlehem Records. He was always a sympathetic accompanist for singers, giving them a solid harmonic foundation while never overwhelming them with his considerable skills.

It is the quartet tunes that work best on The Voice That Is! The musicians gather around Hartman’s voice, ensuring that he remains the focus of attention. The arrangements are models of how musicians in a small jazz group can keep their identities while giving a singer strong support. In "The More I See You," "Waltz for Debby," and the remaining quartet pieces, Jones and guitarist Barry Galbraith weave subtly around Hartman’s rich baritone, as Richard Davis’s strong bass lines and Osie Johnson’s firm but restrained drumming create a solid backdrop. Hartman swings the tunes beautifully while never losing sight of the melodies or the meaning of the words.

Davis, Johnson, and Galbraith hang around for the septet selections, which are filled out with a second guitar, woodwinds, marimba, and Latin percussion. These tracks are perfectly enjoyable, but less so than the quartet sessions. Percussionist Willie Rodriguez seems hesitant and uncertain at times, especially in "Joey, Joey, Joey," a Frank Loesser tune from The Most Happy Fella. Some of the songs Thiele chose for these arrangements seem poor fits, but for the most part Hartman and the group pull them off, especially Bart Howard’s "Let Me Love You," which lets Hartman and the musicians loosen up and do jazz.

Hartman is such a pleasure to listen to that when his voice is married to a piece of solid songwriting craft, such as Henry Mancini’s "A Slow Hot Wind," he overshadows the sometimes bland septet arrangements. Still, it’s the quartet sessions that keep bringing me back to The Voice That Is! This Analogue Productions SACD/CD keeps the original Impulse! LP sequencing, which mixes the quartet and septet tracks (the 1994 GRP Records CD reissue put all the quartet tunes up front). The pacing of the original sequence is enjoyable, and over time you’ll appreciate how Hartman could find something personal and noteworthy even in songs that don’t seem right for him.

I compared the CD layer of the Analogue Productions disc with the 1994 GRP edition. The new remastering is more sharply focused, putting Hartman’s voice out in front and pulling into greater relief such details as the snap of Johnson’s snare drum. The remastering for the SACD tracks brings me much closer to the music. Hartman comes out into the room, the texture of his voice surrounded by a hint of reverb. There’s much better separation between instruments, which makes it easier to hear acoustic guitar tones and the resonance of percussion. The septet arrangements, in particular, come to life in the DSD tracks; I found it much easier to enjoy them.

A brief instance of distortion in the bass at the beginning of "The More I See You" is audible in the GRP CD and more obvious in the CD track of this reissue; the higher resolution of the SACD track makes it quite jarring. However, it’s gone in less than a second, and I heard no other distortion in this recording. This was the first Impulse! reissue I’d heard from Analogue Productions; its resolution and clarity are so impressive that I ordered their reissue of Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth.

The Voice That Is! is not a masterpiece, but Johnny Hartman’s discography is short, much of the album is very good indeed, and Kevin Gray’s excellent remastering makes this the definitive version.

. . . Joseph Taylor