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The clubs were alive with the sound of John's sax ...
December 7, 2001
My Favorite Coltrane
is an individual art that is best expressed collectively, so that the greatest
jazz musicians invariably stand in relation to one another. Such was the case
for Miles Davis and John Coltrane, the two most influential jazz musicians of
Davis and Coltrane were bookends to that decade, which saw the last indisputably
great outpouring of jazz creativity. Davis, the trumpeter, was always more Hollywood.
He was the most photogenic jazz musician ever, and he was heir to a traditionlaunched
by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellingtonof African-American musicians engaging
their white audiences by subverting white expectations of blacks. While Davis
literally would turn his back on audiences on stage, he cared deeply about how
white America viewed him.
Coltrane did not. He was beyond cool; when the adulation came, relatively late
in his short life, Coltrane was already too committed to his own austere vision
of jazz to pander to listeners. Coltrane inspired imitators; Davis sparked entire
schools of jazz. Unlike Miles, who made cryptic statements about his art, Coltrane
said nothing at all. He was like a force of nature that refused to announce
itself. On a rare TV appearance with San Francisco jazz critic Ralph Gleason
in 1963, Coltrane said not a word in the half-hour program. He played, though,
and for Gleason that was enough.
While Miles aged gracefully, and indeed was more popular at the end of his
life than at any time in his prime, Coltrane seemingly willed his deathand
indeed died prematurely at the age of 40 in 1967so that he would not have
to compromise even with the age. Forever young, explosive and principled, Coltrane
was the Che Guevara of modern jazz and the godfather of the avant-garde, the
north star for every jazz rebel in the 20 years after his death, from the inimitable
Pharoah Sanders to the polymathic David Murray.
The 75th anniversary of Davis birth this past May was treated as an opportunity
to reinforce his iconic status and his ascension into the American cultural
canon. Scores of articles were written about Miles, and a raft of reissued material
flowed forth from his longtime label, Columbia (now Sony Records). By contrast,
although the past year was also the 75th anniversary of Coltranes birth,
this occasioned no similar marketing blitz. Coltrane, born in North Carolina
a few months after Miles, remains too far out on the edge for mainstream comprehension.
This is paradoxical, because Coltrane seems so much more of mainstream America
than Miles. In 1957, Coltrane broke a longstanding addiction to drugs and alcohol.
His playing began to blossom and so did his religiosity. Here, again, the contrast
with Davis is sharp. Davis autobiographical confessions about persistent
woman-beating make him something of a Dorian Gray figure: The higher his status,
the worse he treated other people. Coltrane seemed only suited for musical sainthood,
and the devotion of his wife, Alice, a pianist who recorded with Coltrane, underscores
his otherworldliness and personal ethics. Coltranes transcendence of cool
consigns him to the status of cult admiration.
But this is not the same as saying he is ignored. Hardly. In recent years Coltrane
has been subject to the kind of retrospective treatment that only jazz immortals
receive. His every note recorded in a studio, from the mid-50s until the
mid-60s, has been reissued, often in lavish and academic form. Most recently,
Sony Columbia released the marvelous sessions from the mid-to-late 50s
when Coltrane served as the tenor for the Miles Davis quintet (and sometimes
sextet, when altoist Cannonball Adderley was added to the mix). Fantasy Records
storied Prestige label kicked off this Coltrane bonanza in 1991 with a 16-disc
package that included of all Coltranes many loose blowing
sessions from the mid-to-late 50s, when he was a popular sideman for Davis
In 1995 came the appropriately named boxed set, The Heavyweight Champion, seven
discs from the Atlantic label, which arguably contain Coltranes most astonishing
work. The recordings cover a mere 10 months, from December 1959 to October 1960.
In these recordings, considered the best introduction to his mature sound, Coltrane
found his lyrical and haunting mature style and cracked the critical big time
with his own compositions, Giant Steps, Central Park West
and the unforgettable A Love Supreme. He even had a hit record with
a version of the Sound of Music tune (sung by Julie Andrews in the Disney movie)
My Favorite Things.
Coltrane next recorded for Impulse from December 1961 to June 1965. Three years
ago that label released a stunning eight-disc set of all Coltranes recordings
with his fabled quintet, which included McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and either
bassist Jimmy Garrison or Reggie Workman. Impulse has also released a four-disc
set that contains the complete recordings Coltrane made with Eric Dolphy in
New York over a five-day period in November 1961 at the Village Vanguard club,
as well as a single disc, recorded at the Vanguard in 1966, in which Coltrane
performs a 26-minute version of My Favorite Things accompanied by
a second saxophonist.
t is a
testimony to Coltranes enormous productivity in the first half of the
decade, when he was at the height of his powers as a soloist and bandleader,
that even this massive outpouring of his recorded music has left jazz purists
hungry for more. The main gap involves the music of Coltranes single year
on Atlantic and, specifically, My Favorite Things.
The recording for Atlantic came on the first day that McCoy Tyner, the most
influential pianist of the 60s, recorded with Coltrane. The result was
an amazing 13-minute-and-41-second track that, for its time, was both wholly
absorbing and exhaustingly demanding. Coltrane would become famous for recording
20-minute songs (or whole vinyl-album sides) and My Favorite Things
kicked off this practice.
The cut is a stunner. Tyner opens with a two-handed comp that altered jazz
piano forever, planting seeds that would give rise to such disparate pianists
as Keith Jarrett and George Winston, Fred Hersch and Michel Petrucciani. Tyner
was crucial to Coltranes breakthrough because he could both swing and
experiment with equal majesty. And like Coltrane, Tyner was not flamboyant and
said little about himself or his craft.
On My Favorite Things, Coltrane performed on the soprano saxophone;
his playing was so muscular and beautiful that in a single stroke he retrieved
this most slender of saxes from obscurity. While Coltrane was impressed enough
with his playing to make the soprano part of his recording regiment thereafter,
he never recorded My Favorite Things again. When Atlantic (now owned
by AOL Time Warner) went to find Coltranes complete recordings for the
label, no alternate recording could be found. It appears that Coltrane laid
down this classic in a single take.
or years, Coltranes version
of My Favorite Things was a kind of Holy Grail for his fans. So
restless, so fluid was Coltrane that it was inconceivable that he would have
played this song the very same way twice. Norman Granzs Pablo label tantalized
fans of this tune by releasing a couple of live versions performed by Coltrane
in his European tours in 1961, 1962 and 1963. A few poorly recorded and badly
documented bootleg versions, probably of these concert performances, circulated
on European labels.
This is why the release by Fantasy of Live Trane: the European Tours is so
significant. The seven-disc package contains eight hours of music, a third of
it newly released and the rest scattered across several albums. The sound is
vastly improved over the original releases.
Live Trane gives us six different versions of My Favorite Things,
recorded over three years, so that for the first time we hear Coltrane tackling
this pop tune from a variety of angles. All these versions are gems, some dominated
by his soloing and by contributions from Tyner and Elvin Jones. On one version,
Coltrane is joined on flute by Dolphy, a neglected master. What is astonishing
about Coltranes handling of this Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune is that
he fuses avant-garde and pop so deliciously that jazz musicians ever since have
sought to do the same. So alluring is Coltranes achievement that no less
a reigning arbiter of jazz taste than Wynton Marsalis has spent more than a
decade trying (and failing) to equal it.
My Favorite Things became an anthem for Coltrane. It was perhaps the last time in jazz history that the cutting edge met pop culture and both triumphed. This was Coltranes giftand proof of his ability to satisfy an audiences craving for both the familiar and the unknown.