In addition to being the birthday of Ray Charles, yesterday was the birthday of jazz giant John Coltrane who may be the representative figure of jazz music, in my limited purview, even more than Miles Davis. Certainly it’s one or the other, along with a third gent who will be showing up next month.
“My Favorite Things” is such an obvious choice, it’s a bit lame. The choice, not the track. The track is “obvious” because it’s so amazingly good, so satisfying at every level, and so very popular with casual jazz fans such as your truly. I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to describe or name all the levels. But first up is the fact that it takes a recognizable, perhaps even an insipid, standard and works a miraculous sea change upon it. And it’s miraculous because all the playing is so involved and involving without ever flirting with the kind of all-out indulgence, that, I gotta admit, confronts me on many an extended jazz outing.
Coltrane made “giant steps” on the album of that name en route to this recording, and there are three tracks on that record I know well because they grace The Best of John Coltrane CD that was my intro to his music. Well, I had a used copy of Meditations I’d picked up somewhere before that but that was too wigged out for me to give it more than a cursory listen. Fast-forward to around 1991 when I was sitting a friend’s cat—damn, I can’t remember that cat’s name—and saw a cassette of the Coltrane Best Of and gave it a listen. Them were the days of my spanking new CD player with barely a stack of CDs, and out I did go and purchase said Coltrane release, and it was (mostly) on account of today’s song. Though I could probably have just as easily gone for “Central Park West,” the closer on that album which is in the vein of the “blue jazz” I generally like best, all rain-washed lanes and darkling skies.
Today’s song isn’t like that at all, and I want to slot it in here as the fall starts ratcheting up its claims because it’s got that feel I love so well this time of year—the feel of a late afternoon cuppa while in maybe slippers and a sweater, and the clouds in the sky adding visual interest as does the hues of the trees in your immediate vicinity. Granted, I think of jazz as urban—even urbane—music, but for this fantasy you’ll have to be in an apartment overlooking a park, or maybe in some book nook café across the way from one. And percolating all over that ambient space is Coltrane, with McCoy Tyner on piano—the man!—and Steve Davis on double bass and Elvin Jones on drums, keeping the bop in check but still ringing such surprising and delightful variations on a song everyone knows; you’re able to dip in and out of the tune like they do, letting its return signal something like a homecoming parade, a gang’s all here grabfest where everyone’s digging the vibes and getting some of whatever it is they most want—even if it’s “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.” You might even be able to blot out The Sound of Music (no, I’ve never watched it, probably because I got sick of nuns and girls talking about it when I was in grade school) and not even think once of Alps and Nazis.
I gotta say though—and it may be the novelty of Coltrane on soprano saxophone, as opposed to the tracks from Giant Steps (1960)—that there’s a bright mellowness, or maybe a mellow brightness, to all his leads and solos that is very easy on the ears, and there are passages from Tyner that create a texture as accompaniment— and even a nice extended lead passage from 2:19 to 7:02—that has that feel of looking on at snow or rain when you’re as cozy as can be, possibly on a train since there’s definitely a feeling of forward movement. While I’m generally not one to celebrate coziness as a desiderata, I let myself wallow in it on this track, if only because the sound should give you the welcoming embrace you tend to find only with your favorite things, maybe even favorite people.
And this is not a track that has to be tracked—like it doesn’t matter if you lose your “place.” It’s a stream you’re moving along and you’ll come out where you should. Actually, if I had any film footage of me, or better, my POV, while paddling across solitary lakes in Minnesota this summer, I’d put this on the soundtrack. Water, sun, trees, rocks. These are a few of my favorite things.
When Coltrane comes back in, it’s peppier but there’s something in the long holds and the fast bursts that start to make you think of . . . well, starts to make me think of painting, varying the brushstrokes, sometimes firm pressure, sometimes loose. Sometimes low and mellow, sometimes high and grainy. And the swirl in the ear—especially those “steps” 10:19 to 10:22—makes for a nice frisson in the brain. And then that little coda after the full statement of the melody, coming in on the “then I don’t feel so bad” segment—12:49 to 13:25—is a bit like arriving at the much-anticipated portage. Coasting calmly to shore.