July 12, 2024


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Raindrops on roses: We are all influenced by John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones: Videos, Photos

Last month, I wrote two posts that examined Billy Hart’s recordings as a leader in some detail. Soon after, Ethan Iverson published an excerpt from Hart’s forthcoming memoir. Something Billy said in that excerpt leaped out at me: “Coltrane is my reason.”

This gave me an “a-ha!”moment— “So that’s it. That’s what I missed. It’s John Coltrane’s music behind all of this.”

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Lewis Porter’s great series of articles on A Love Supreme got me happily listening to that seminal album with a new understanding. Thanks to Porter’s incredible work, A Love Supreme now seems less a once-in-a-lifetime gift from the gods, and instead the product of excellence and effort. The album, as Porter shows, was carefully composed and fully conceived by John Coltrane, yet purposefully open to his band member’s individuality. What seemed beyond human was shown by Porter to be fully human.

Meanwhile, Harmony Holiday’s essay on Andrè 3000’s flute album and meditation on Bisan Owda both went right inside me. It’s easy to wonder if there’s room for our favorite things— music, drumming, jazz, community— these days. I read her and I find out. Coltrane might be one of Holiday’s touchstones, so effortlessly does she create a Coltrane-esque intensity in her work.

Then, Ethan Iverson published a brief appreciation of the Byrds “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, and another sentence smacked me in the face: “Man, the Sixties were so damn hip.” I started thinking about “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, about the Byrds in Los Angeles, about Pete Seeger, asymmetrical phrases and sincere intention, folk songs gone electric, advanced recording technology, musical complexity within a popular song…..Burt Bacharach, bossa nova, West Side Story, Sly Stone, Sgt. Pepper, Stevie Wonder, Keith Jarrett. That stuff is so hip and I love it so.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about John Coltrane.

“My Favorite Things” entered the jazz repertoire as soon as The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in November 1959. Benny Goodman was first to record an arrangement, a sort of chamber jazz setting that moves to a swinging 4/4.

West Coast pianist Paul Smith recorded it a few months later in January 1960. Like Goodman, he played the tune in 4/4, and left the form and changes of Rodger and Hammerstein’s tune intact.

John Coltrane’s arrangement discarded the original form and changes, replacing them with just two chords, while centering and elevating the melody of the piece. Most importantly, Coltrane seems enchanted by the rhythm of “My Favorite Things”, and kept the song in 3/4.

Trane alone seems to have understood the possibilities of 3/4, and with Elvin Jones on drums, Coltrane’s original recording of “My Favorite Things” for Atlantic Records with McCoy Tyner on piano, and Steve Davis on bass became a radio hit, a piece of music unlike anything else heard in 1960.

As played by John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner, “My Favorite Things” is a wealth of contradictions: major and minor, a drone and a kaleidoscope of melody and harmony, a waltz that suggests 6/8, 4/4, and a West African percussion choir, a Broadway show tune and a mystical chant. It represents populism and idealism, the best of the Sixties, and a mirror for ourselves today.

Coltrane recorded “My Favorite Things” on October 21, 1960, day one of a three-day recording session (October 21, 24, and 26) for Atlantic that are the earliest studio sessions of Coltrane with Tyner and Jones. Those three days in October 1960 produced all the recordings the Coltrane Quartet made for Atlantic: My Favorite Things (1961), Coltrane Plays The Blues (released in 1962), and Coltrane’s Sound (released in 1964).

Within this epochal music, “My Favorite Things” is a complete outlier. Not only did it sound like nothing else in jazz, it sounded like nothing else in the group’s repertoire. Unlike their voluble readings of “Satellite”, or “26-2”, “My Favorite Things” just sits there, benign and static, with few dynamic changes, lots of rhythm, and an eye on the future.

Jones plays four hits on two different cymbals as McCoy plays the portentous intro, and the curtain opens: Tyner comps, Jones percolates and simmers, never coming to a boil, and bassist Steve Davis twangs his fifths and octaves, over and over.

Coltrane’s arrangement of the tune is harder to explain than it is to hear. Here’s my attempt:

  • Coltrane plays the A section melody (rain drops on roses) in E minor;
  • this is followed by an E minor vamp.
  • Coltrane plays the second A section melody (cream colored ponies) in E minor,
  • this is followed by an E major vamp.
  • The E major vamp continues. I always hear this as a B section!
  • The A section melody returns (girls in white dresses) in E minor, no vamp.
  • The final A section melody (this melody does not appear here in the Rodgers and Hammerstein original) in E minor, then an E minor vamp.

Then McCoy solos, but instead of a ‘McCoy Tyner solo’, he plays through the entire arrangement again: Tyner plays four more A section melodies, and vamps in between. On the vamps, Tyner plays repeating notes and adds a few rolling triplets, more decorative and obbligato than soloistic.

Attention must be paid to Elvin Jones. In 1960, Jones was the only drummer in jazz who could have gotten Trane’s arrangement of “My Favorite Things” off the ground. Throughout, Elvin subtly alters his volume and density, with constant micro variations on his basic time-keeping pattern. He never once plays a dramatic fill, and rarely even leaves his ride cymbal. More to the point, on “My Favorite Things”, Elvin’s storied rolling triplets are, maybe for the first time, being used to their fullest musical potential: Elvin’s burbling brook is gently inducing a trance.

When Coltrane re-enters, he plays the melody againthe ninth time we’ve heard the A section melody (“raindrops on roses”). Now, Coltrane more properly solos on the vamps. Finally, the last bit of Richard Rodgers’ melody (“when the dog bites/when the bee stings”) is played, signaling the end of the tune, and it winds down.

Throughout, Tyner’s and Jones’ relative restraint is astonishing, and key to the success of “My Favorite Things”. They didn’t play like this on any other tracks they recorded with Trane in late October 1960! Though I can’t imagine them talking about it, it must have been an intentional choice on Elvin’s and McCoy’s part to play as they do on this song.

As McCoy and Elvin churn, drawing our attention to tiny changes in the rhythm, major and minor tonality are no longer opposed, nor ranked in a hierarchy, but simply alternate and coexist. With the trance-inducing rhythms of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, “My Favorite Things” doesn’t need to move forward in time, it doesn’t use melody and harmony to create forward motion.

Rather, the music circles back on itself— the repetition of the arrangement is the point. By cycling towards and away from our favorite things, the song mirrors the experience of a meaningful existence.

One can sense an entire future universe come into existence on this one track. Obviously, a single recorded piece of music can’t cause so much change, but we can hear the intimations of so much good music still to come in “My Favorite Things”:

Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” implies the minimalism of Steve Reich (a committed Coltrane fan, also a keen observer of Kenny Clarke!) and Phillip Glass; suggests myriad musical traditions outside the USA; connects jazz to the coming rock and psychedelic soul movements; it looks ahead to ambient music. Going backward, it’s merely the latest in a long line of Broadway tunes given new life by jazz musicians, a practice going back to Louis Armstrong.

For Coltrane, the success of “My Favorite Things” meant more gigs, more record dates, a chance to reach more people and expand the scope of his music.

But “My Favorite Things” remained in the center, and at the center of the record is the brilliance and artistry of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. Together, they intuited our musical world today, obsessed with rhythm, trance, and sound.

All respect.

“My Favorite Things” became Coltrane’s signature song. He played the tune, it seems, at every gig he did from its release until his death in 1967. This must reflect both his fondness for the song, and a gesture to the audience.

While obsessively listening to A Love Supreme and My Favorite Things for the past weeks, I started to hear, in Jones, Tyner, Coltrane, Steve Davis, and Jimmy Garrison, not just depth of feeling, seriousness of purpose, and the intensity of creation, but a humanness, even a sense of humor. Not jokes, but a wink, a light heart, a casualness, a joyful noise I’d never heard before; perhaps I was getting glimpses of the men Billy Hart and so many others knew so well.

Coltrane’s music is deeply serious, freighted with the spiritual and musical progress he undertook as the work of his life. But if John Coltrane’s music was only as “serious” as I sometimes took it to be, it would not (and could not) have touched so many people over such a distance of time and place. Coltrane, Tyner, and Jones’ music communicates, with great intensity, all their favorite things, all the beauty and joy sitting next to the pain and sorrow.

Basically, I realized that Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and John Coltrane loved playing music, and consequently, loved their lives. How else could they have made music like “My Favorite Things” and A Love Supreme?

I have a long way to go, but I have all I need.

All gratitude and respect for Harmony Holiday, Lewis Porter, Ethan Iverson, Billy Hart, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and John Coltrane.

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