'How 'gainst this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?'
In connection to the newly released album The John Coltrane Quartet plays The Sound Of Music
(Impulse!), this article describes the evolution of the song "My Favorite Things" up until the last entry in the "Olatunji Concert" of 1967, where Coltrane gives a performance that is today evident to stand the test of time much further than it already has.
My initial quote applies to the resistance and critic John Coltrane had to battle in his artistic life, a fact that could come hard to understand in the light of the general acceptance now present. The mass opinion in his day was split, to say the least. In the long run, however, quality shows and prevails.
Rodgers & Hammerstein's song in the musical The Sound of Music,
following its initial appearance on Broadway and on film, in as short a time as eight years was to be taken to a journey that the composers could not have anticipated when they wrote it. From the original version sung by Mary Martin on stage in 1959 Coltrane, when forming his classic quartet in 1960, picked it up to become his own "favorite thing." With his first album, also called My Favorite Things
, with the "classic" quartet that was to become an all time high in modern jazz, Coltrane took a modal approach to the song. He arranged it in a chant-like, Afro-Indian, style, using his then new instrument, the soprano sax, with pianist McCoy Tyner hammering the cords to create a completely new thing in jazz. The song made Coltrane and the band to instantly sky-rocket to fame in the overall jazz scene.
From then on Coltrane kept playing it on almost every live appearance and recorded it several times up until 1965, when he made up his mind to venture into new territory, 'free form' jazz.
Having been aboard the Coltrain
since almost 50 years (1958), some sunny days I flatter myself as being an authority on his music. In this text I thought I might restrain myself only to comment on a few peculiarities in the Coltrane way of treating jazz that has a bearing on the various critical viewpoints he was (and still is, by a diminishing crowd) exposed to and on the subject of this article. In the early days of his slow rise to importance, in the Miles and Monk bands, the opinion was split between devote admirers and critics thinking he was playing ugly and out of tune, didn't swing and generally was a poor musician. Coltrane himself commented that his playing 'sometimes didn't come off the way I (he) wanted it to.' This was a typically modest was of saying: please wait, you'll catch up! And although in those early days he did make some technical mistakes, because what he was after was so advanced, much of the critic was due to misunderstanding. Despite his rapid evolution, one line in his playing all to the end was a method of consciously playing with tempo. Already then he deliberately tried playing off-beat, which he did more and more regularly. This was an early element on his road to 'free form' jazz that he kept doing increasingly ever after. Close study of his solos will reveal how more and more controlled this playing became, and how he used it to expand and vitalize the scope of his music. Ugly or beautiful is a matter of taste, I go for the same opinion as Amiri Baraka's, 'Beauty has nothing to do with it, but it is!'
Incidentally, Coltrane, it appears, sometimes had a kind of love for moody tunes that has got change of key in them. Cole Porter's "Everytime We Say Goodbye" is another such example that he liked playing initially with his quartet. Although lyricwise certainly not moody, My Favorite Things in 1960 Coltrane-style gives the same kind of blue mood feeling. By the way, to change the train
to yet another side track, did you ever notice the similarities between 'Everytime We say Goodbye' and Coltrane's own 'Dear Lord,' recorded 1965, years after he had stopped playing the former tune? I don't know if it was a deliberate transcription of the Porter song, or if he consciously or unconsciously drew from it. Play them after each other and you'll get it; kindred spirits, to say the least.
At present time, regrettably, all we have to judge from is recordings, the sound of his horn has since long faded. But it is evident that Coltrane, starting from the recording of 1960, stretched his initial layout of "My Favorite Things" over time to keep up with the ongoing evolution of his music. By 1965 the song did not sound the way it did in 1960, even though he kept it generally pretty strict within the original concept only adding longer, more complex solos. Or, which isn't a surprise in retrospect, it mutated naturally with the mutation of the music of the quartet.