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Artist Profiles

The Indefinite Version (of My Favorite Things)

By Published: July 3, 2007
During his artistic life Coltrane, just like a butterfly, transformed in basically four stages: From a WWII Army band member and then a pretty ordinary big band member whose performances didn't reveal a potential for what he was to become. Then came the 2nd stage, 'Pre-1960,' playing as a side man in other smaller groups and occasionally with a band under his own leadership. The glory of John Coltrane is that his music attracts jazz fans of so many different tastes. The "Pre-1960" Coltrane, still roaming within basically hard bop and although he had not yet reached his summit, because of his genius appeals to almost any bop fan, and the numbers are increasing.

The third Coltrane transformation stage, the "Classic Quartet" years 1960 to 1965, was built mostly on modal jazz that by the way, according to Miles Davis in his autobiography Miles, was invented and introduced to Coltrane by himself at the end of their playing together (People with less self esteem might have put it differently). However, to me, even though the quartet evolved so fantastically and introduced a new and superior sound in jazz during its existence, it was still at the end operating within the same framework as when formed, i.e. modal music built on harmonic structures, sometimes even blending in some bop style. Some people wrongly sometimes even regard this period as free form jazz, which it isn't, and are probably mixing up the intensity that frequently is outrageous for this latter style.

As a matter fact, again in my view, still after transforming into his last form, the so called "after-1965, free form" or "late period," Coltrane never completely left harmonic playing in his solos. The free form music then presented was for sure without harmonies, melody, beat, whatever, in its superstructure; the setting of band members, choice of songs and venues played. Undoubtedly, Coltrane really wanted to cast his imaginary ties to the past and to venture into the new musical stage of "free form" and to me this elaborate step, which included an almost opposed and impossible somersault in his way of performing his art, because of its severity was only just begun at the time of his death.

Imagine, with parallels to paining, Jeff Koons starting seriously to go into the impressionistic style or Picasso to work in the "Ink-spot" style- this was the kind of enterprise Coltrane decided for in his late music. He chose band members, to whom the basics in this new style was natural, to help him. Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali most notably. He tried to change his choice of songs and arrangements (if this could be done in free form music, a better word maybe is performance planning) but in my view he never got so far as to completely free himself of the harmonic 'ties' in his soloing.

This is, however, where "My Favorite Things" comes back in focus. The songs played by free form Coltrane with almost no exception but one was non-harmonic songs and non-standards. But on his very last taped concert performance, as the very last song, appears "My Favorite Things." And it is the definitive version, over all, including those by other performers, of the Rodgers-Hammerstein composition. This time Coltrane appears, as if he knew it would be his last opportunity, to want to hand it over to future generations in its true and refined form. He solos more densly throughout than ever before. He comes as near true free form music as he ever did. He does not have to, or want, to state the melody (other than fragmentary) because it is so well known, but only to mold the song into a testament by giving it his "no-frills" vision at present state of bare-to-the-bones timeless artwork. Included are all past and furious instrument practices, all experience collected from the four development shapes, all determination, all of his genius.

By virtue of time elapsed, after 40 years when it comes to art although a short period, assessing the true merits of the Olatunji-My Favorite Things performance is a pretty sure thing. Proclaiming a work of art of indefinite value not only implies the work itself as having an artistic strength surpassing time, but also that the artist, by virtue of his creative genius, is alive to audiences long after his death.

Or, as W. Somerset Maugham has put it: "Reverence is often no more than the conventional homage we pay to things in which we are not willing to take an active interest. The best homage we can pay to the great figures of the past, Dante, Titian, Shakespeare, Spinoza, is to treat them not with reverence, but with the familiarity we should exercise if they were our contemporaries. Thus we pay the highest compliment we can, our familiarity acknowledges that they are alive for us."

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