This is guest post by Yochai Wolf, who writes brilliant blog in Hebrew called Japan In Dishpan. He went through a journey through Coltrane’s several versions of My Favorite Things, as milestones to his artisitc development. His post is based on an interesting thesis by Scott Anderson, and it’s very interesting.
There are many musicians that I love, respect and adore. Some, like Zappa, Beefheart, Peter Hammill or the Israeli troubadour Meir Ariel, are true mentors, and the things I learned from them about life I also apply to non-musical areas of life.
One such mentor, and accidently (or not) the musician which I have the most records of, is saxophonist John Coltrane. What is it about this man that makes people consider him as a saint (there’s even a church after his name)? Hard to say. But Trane is an amazing example of the perfect combination between heart and mind, between reason and sentiment.
The second he blows into the saxophone, the molecular composition of the air changes, just like that. Beyond Trane’s amazing abilities, and the mystic way he plays, he also went though an amazing development as an artist; in fact, in a relatively short career- 12 years- he went in an incredible speed, changing his style every year or so, in a frenzy that could have span several careers; from a harsh and challenging internship with Miles Davis, to the deranged laboratory of Theloniuos Monk, then the first solo albums which exhibited a jaw-dropping technical skill dubbed ‘the sheets of sound’, then Modal jazz which broke through the harmonic complexes of the time, and finally a ferocious style change into avant-garde, free jazz, still controversial to this day.
Lately I came across a thesis written by musicologist named Scott Anderson about Coltrane, in which he observes the musical development and the personal and spiritual journey Trane undertook between the most significant years of his career, 1960-1967, which began with establishing his mythological quartet, a period in which he recorded his most lauded and popular works, and ended with the late quintet, a far more controversial band.
The thing I liked about Anderson’s thesis, which I adapt here freely with his personal approval (the entire original thesis is available here), is the usage of one particular, very famous Coltrane tune, the waltz from Roggers’s and Hammerstein’s “The Sound Of Music”, and I mean no other then My Favorite Things (or MFT in short), sort of Trane’s signature tune.
Anderson inspects different versions- sometimes very different- of MFT chronologically, and demonstrates Trane’s development into more and more experimental, adventurous and extreme directions. Trane recorded tons of music but MFT have a special place in his catalogue, and this is one my favorite bits ever. I will try my best to minimize the usage of musical theories etc., whoever wants more details can read the original.
Trane’s first performance of MFT, which is also the sole studio recording of it, comes from an album of the same name from 1961.
With Trane, musicians are Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, and the obscure Steve “Art” Davis on bass.
A year later Davis will be replaced by Jimmy Garrison and thus- the classic John Coltrane quartet will be fully established. This album is hugely important for Trane, because of MFT, for several reasons: First, MFT is a prime example of modal jazz. Although Trane plays his variation of the theme, all the improvisations are based on a fixed chord (Vamp, in jazz jargon) and not on the changes of the songs itself as accepted in be-bop and hard-bop. Trane’s deliberately avoids the minor-major definition of the songs, which gives it such elusive beauty. Secondly, Trane plays here for the first time on soprano sax, an obsolete instrument up to that point, and the tune itself made it a legitimate instrument in jazz.
And, most importantly, the tune became somehow a radio “hit” (in an abridged version), which exposed Trane to a wider audience then the small jazz circuit; This is one of the reasons why Trane is so popular by non-jazz listeners. What is amazing and devastating in this early version is its elegancy and delicacy. Trane and the gang plays so modestly and nobly and this is so beautiful, what probably manifests best in in Tyner’s solo; this delicacy will later disappear over the years. Another prominent thing is Trane’s extra-jazz influences- there’s a lot of Indian and African music in his playing, which relates to Trane’s wish to transcend regular jazz (Trane will later record tunes name “India” and “Africa”).
The second variation is two years later, from Newport Festival 1963, which appears in the album In Newport. Trane and the quartet already recorded several incredible records. But there is a huge difference between this and the 1961 version. First, the musicians here are different- Jimmy Garrison is on bass, and Roy Haynes, another legendary drummer, replaces Jones due to drug rehabilitation.
Unlike the restraint modesty of the original version, the band here really rips it off; this is in fact my favorite version of MFT. Everybody here are much more enthusiastic and the general feel is of a rock concert, not jazz concert. The rhythm sections is far wilder- unlike Davis and Jones which were very reserved, Garrison and especially Haynes are ecstatic; Haynes didn’t play much with Trane but he virtually plays one continuous drum solo throughout the entire performance, not a single drum hit sounds like the subsequent one, he’s always on the move and that’s my definition of a good drummer.
Trane is playing like a man in trance, no other words can describe, he breaks the instrument and the song and rebuild it, and that’s about the farthest you can go by playing the sax “regularly” without playing real avant-garde, as will happen two years later. One can compare this to Schonberg, who in his early career had already used Wagner’s harmonic inventions to the peak, right before breaking the boundaries completely by composing atonal music; Trane also played “conventionally” to the limit, and he will break up the rules from now on- first gradually, then frantically.
A third performance described in the thesis is from the same place, Newport festival, but from two years later- 1965. This version of MFT appears in the album New Thing At Newport (co-credited to Archie Shepp). To understand this performance one must understand the immense stylistic shift of Trane’s Music in 1965, the year where he broke off the lines are started to play in-your-face free jazz.
Under the inspiration of younger players like Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, and pioneers of Trane’s age like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, Trane began to play more and more avant-garde while exploiting the most extreme techniques and playing in much more abstract structures; the music became more and more chaotic and tempo-less, and the majority of Trane’s fans, including his own bandmates, did not like it and found it noisy and illogical.
I recommend every album Trane cut that year, an astonishing series of recordings starting with the famous A Love Supreme from late 1964, up to my favorite Trane album, Meditations, in late 1965. This series is characterized by increasing experimentation, atonality and loss of strict tempo. The Newport 1965 recording caught Trane right in the middle of the process, where the quartet is still intact but plays very dissonant music. You can actually hear the inner tensions and chaos within the group- the stricter of the songs is still similar to the original but already from Elvin Jones’ violent drums in the beginning you can sense the stress and anger: the groups plays very hard and aggressive, Tyner goes farther then ever in his solo, and Trane rips the sax apart with squeaks and screeches. This is my least favorite MFT, and obviously none of the players enjoy the outcome; in the end of the years, Jones and Tyner dramatically leave the group after playing 5 years with Trane.
Trane did not quit playing and formed a new group, with musicians already prominent in the album Meditations. Around Trane and Garrison a band emerged, playing completely different music. Here played Trane’s second wife, the wonderful Alice Coltrane, which had to deal with some raised eyebrows regarding her joining the group, playing similarly to Tyner at this point- she still hadn’t formed her own style; Rashid Ali, the amazing and in my opinion the best free jazz drummer ever, who instead of trying to fit Jones’ huge shoes made his own; and the true dynamite of the band, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, the wildest player around at that time.
The music became very open and abstract, and so was MFT. The version recoreded in the Village Vangaurd club in 1966, included in the album Live at The Village Vanguard Again!, is now radically different than previous versions- not much left from the original structure, there is no sense of a waltz or any other tempo, Ali’s drumming sounds like from another galaxy altogether, and when Sanders plays his tenor sax, every trace of the original songs is gone, he ignores it completely and just plays what he feels like. This is complete freedom but it also comes with chaos and destruction of the past, of the good order, and many could not comprehend what was conceived as Trane’s self-destruct. Why did Trane’s music became so ugly, what is he trying to achieve, asked the fans? By the way, the thesis does not analyze this version but I add it here.
The last performance dealt with was recorded in Trane’s Japanese tour in 1966, appearing on the 4-CD album Live In Japan, and it shows that this is not an “ugly” music, but a groundbreaking group with incredible musicians which transcends definitions and conventions. In this tour Trane and the band really show what they are capable of, and the solos can go up to 20 minutes and more. Likewise, the monumental performance of MFT is 57(!!) minutes long, starting with an unaccompanied bass solo by Garrison, in itself 14 minutes long- meaning, longer than the original 1961 version!
At this late point in Trane and MFT’ s development, MFT’s structure has very little resemblance to the original, and some would claim that the song’s title is redundant. Trane’s in top form, playing two long solos, including an alto sax solo, and instrument he only rarely played, Alice is also playing a beautiful solo, and most impressive is surprisingly Sanders, which again only barely refers to the original melody but shows he is more than a disturbed chid and his solo is relatively reserved. A Breathtaking performance, which requires about a week to digest, and the ultimate peak of Trane’s development. By the way, it is not the last MFT recorded performance- the last one is from 1967, but in horrible quality- and rumor has it that a circulated bootleg contains a mythological performance which includes Trane, Sanders and Albert Ayler- the father, son and holy ghost of Jazz; I wish one day it would come out as well.
WOW. What a journey it was. Not many musicians went through such amazing transitions, not many musicians have some much depth. This is why I keep getting back to Trane over and over again, every time I see something different, new, he is so much ahead. I admire him so much for this journey, for this everlasting search, this inconvenience and dissatisfaction with the present, and the urge to change and renew oneself.
John Coltrane is a major artist, and I hope I was able, with the help of Scott Anderson, to demonstrate why, on the tip of the iceberg.