Slogging through my extant Holiday music, I rediscovered “My Favorite Things,” by John Coltrane. Not exactly a Holiday Music album, I admit (with the exception of the title cut) but, if you’re holiday party was going sour, it’s an album to get things in the mood.
With the “classic” Coltrane band on board (McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass and Elvin Jones on drums), there’s little reason not to have the album in your collection — we’re talking essential albums, again — as it’s a giant of 20th century recorded music and one of the best of Coltrane’s albums. Which is saying a lot given that almost the entire Coltrane library is classic, there’s not a single album of his (that I’m aware of) given to garbage or filler.
While Coltrane had hinted at where he was headed with 1960 “Giant Steps” release (his first album containing entirely his own compositions), it wasn’t until “My Favorite Things” that we got a sense of where he was going — to change the course of music. Giant Steps nodded to his direction, from Bop to “Hard Bop” (as he had exhibited in his sessions with Miles Davis) but everything became clear in “My Favorite Things;” Coltrane was determined to make music different, exciting, something it could be and had never been. Jazz had always been about riffing on a melody and extending it (Louis Armstong’s famous, “I can’t tell you what it is but I know it when I hear it” leading to Justice Potter’s famous follow up on pornography, “I know it when I see it,” comment). While Coltrane was given plenty of leeway when he joined Atlantic records, after having left Blue Note (a much more staid label), it took him a few releases to grab the ring.
So, there are just four cuts on the album; still, I can fill this column with the entire album.
There’s not a single wasted note, no misstep, no eye-rolling stab at the histrionic; no moment in the album misses a beat, steps into the hackneyed or jacks us for a minute of our time. It is a revelation.
To begin with the title cut, obviously it’s Coltrane’s take on the Rogers and Hammerstein centerpiece of “The Sound of Music,” a saccharine sweet little tune in that dietetically inducing musical, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, brown paper package s tied up with strings, these are a few of my favorite things.”
Ugh. And, innocuous enough but, with Tyner pounding it out with minor chords, anchored with Davis’s fat bass lines (and Jones softly slapping the snare), the song begins with an ominous tone, only to have Coltrane reconcile the feel with his saxophone lift the mood up, immediately. Although we hear the melody played over Tyner, Davis and Jones jamming on the melody, it is Coltrane’s playing that transcends the tune, free and floating above everything we think of as music, tearing the boundaries out, creating something new with every chromatic and modal experiment.
Having broken with Miles Davis, Coltrane knew what he was doing, creating in the moment, the complete jazz experience, riffing without constraints, ripping down the barriers because those curtains didn’t matter anymore, they were merely blocking out the light.
“My Favorite Things” is 14 minutes of revolutionary music, standing in that pantheon with Bach (we just say “Bach” since we don’t really know which cut it was where he really cut loose); Beethoven’s Third Symphony (check out my blog); sides cut by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five quintet; early recordings by Robert Johnson; Elvis’s early Sun sessions; or “Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.”
It’s that important, it’s that essential; it matters that much.
Whereas Miles Davis had been locked into earlier jazz conventions, Coltrane blew out the doors, extending the possibilities, to infinity. After “My Favorite Things,” there was no going back. While Ornette Coleman had invented “Free Jazz” (and, arguably codified it), it was Coltrane who took it to its melodic conclusion, made it accessible, made it real enough for consumption to the jazz listening masses. Without Coltrane, the entire “Free Jazz” movement would have languished in obscurity.
Instead, the form took hold — for better or worse. Done well by countless adherents (like Weather Report) and dismally by the all-too-ubiquitous funk-jazz bands that continue to insult our ears (hear Dotsero), it nonetheless influenced numerous musicians, especially in rock. Just listen to Roger McGuinn’s guitar solo on “Eight Miles High” or any of Jimi Hendrix’s solos and you’ll hear Coltrane’s soloing influence (and, in the case of Hendrix, how a band will play around — as opposed to playing behind — a soloist).
The second cut on the album, “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” is standard enough, a smoky barroom side cut from the Miles Davis years. While it still manners to convey Coltrane’s conviction to expanding the boundaries of jazz (giving Tyner room to run freely on the keys on an Aeolian scale while Davis and Jones fill out the spaces), his playing is exquisite, reminding us he’s not merely fooling with us.
We’re brought back to the experiment with “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess) as a complete turn from the melancholy, funereal version he’d played with Miles Davis. From the opening notes there’s no doubt that Coltrane has something else in mind; there are three notes before he tears it apart, the melody distorted and taken well outside the realms of its White shirt. Coltrane is not happy with Gershwin’s Disneyfication of African-American life (just as Miles Davis was not) but he takes it in his own direction, beyond Jupiter but not saturnine, ripping the rings off of everything and making it his own. It is, in its way, a celebration of Black Power and breaks the bonds of oppression. It is twelve minutes of subversive bliss.
So far, I’ve praised Coltrane’s playing to the point of adoration (which it should be; I’ve always said, if I didn’t take up guitar, I’d have taken up the saxophone) but Tyner’s piano (on par with Thelonious Monk, whom Coltrane also sided with) is no less wickedly radical; nor is the bass playing by Davis or Jones’s drums. Coltrane put together the perfect band, a band that would carry him through most of the ’60s and through several classic albums.
However, it was Coltrane’s playing (despite the finesse of his cohorts) that make his albums memorable (especially “My Favorite Things”) and it is, after all, his band — he leads. And, to his credit, he hired the best to back him up.
Finally, “But For Not For Me,” the final cut, showcases Coltrane’s prodigious sax playing (especially on the soprano sax, not well-received in jazz until then). While Tyner, Davis and Jones are given moments, it is Coltrane, set loose on modal playing experiments (again, making the most of Phrygian and Dorian scales — and beyond), bringing a Middle Eastern sound to jazz as he did with the title cut.
There have been great saxophone players in jazz — Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ornette Coleman, et al — but none, in my estimation, extended it in the way that John Coltrane did, not as a musician and, especially, as a composer. And, as difficult as it is for me to pick out one of his albums (“Giant Steps,” “A Love Supreme,” “Ascension,” etc.,) “My Favorite Things” is, well, one of my favorite things, and (again, check the blog), a disk I’d definitely take to an island with me, given just 10 disks and the rest of my life to listen to those.
Everything aside, “My Favorite Things” is one of those albums you must own. You might excuse owning Toto’s greatest hits or Lady GaGa’s latest, but there’s no excuse to not own John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.”