by Steve Pick
The first time I heard John Coltrane, back in 1983, I saw God pouring out of the speakers. The universe melted, animate and inanimate matter became one, and I was aware of it all. I have never taken LSD in my life.
I am not a believer in things mystical or spiritual or supernatural, but if I were, Coltrane would be my evidence. His music, while grounded in the most sophisticated developments of theory, was often meant to express his own beliefs in the connections between here, now, and the infinite. Working in record stores all these years, I am aware that there are people who would follow Trane only so far - the interesting thing is that while some drew the line after Blue Train, others went on to A Love Supreme, and still others stopped after his wife Alice joined the band. It's a rare listener who accepts that one person, with a consistent musical quest, did everything Coltrane did before he passed away far too soon in 1967.
The album My Favorite Things is a clear transition from the relatively mainstream jazz of Giant Steps (mainstream, that is, if that's what you call writing one of the most complex, densely structured pieces ever created). The title track is justly one of his most famous works, a soprano sax showcase for the possibilities of a simple tune played over modal harmony. On the same album, we find Coltrane's version of "Summertime."
When I started researching this cut, which I'd heard dozens of times without thinking too deeply about it, I thought he'd stripped it down to three chords, but eventually I realized that, while not exactly following Gerswhin's original harmonic structure, there are changes within the individual lyric lines of the verse. However, the opening chord of each line becomes the important one, as every time a new line begins, there is an emphasis not necessarily placed on any of the concluding lines, except the last note of the verse.
That may or may not make sense to you when you listen to the cut, but think of it this way. In a weird sense, Coltrane and his band - McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums - are almost thinking of this song the way punk bands would interpret standards two decades later. Melodies follow the barest outline of the chord changes, rather than hew strictly to the tightest of structures - after "Giant Steps," this idea must have seemed intensely liberating to these players.
Coltrane launches in from the beginning with a flurry of long notes at the beginning of phrases followed by an onslaught of quarter notes, eighths, and sixteenths. He never plays the tune as we know it, but he never forgets it, either. Bits and pieces of the familiar are always strewn in between the elaboration, and you'll find yourself singing along at the same time you're flying through space with the stream of tenor sax sounds.
There is a kind of push-pull thing going on here, too. On the first and third lines of each verse, the rhythm section is ahead of the beat, or perhaps directly on it, always creating a throb which sometimes hits the chords in question on the head. But, on the second and fourth lines, there is always a release (especially as these come from the minor to the major, particularly with the fourth line), and the instruments swing. You'd think this would get predictable over 11 and a half minutes, but these guys have so many different ways of pulling off essentially the same trick you never get tired.
Tyner's solo dances much lighter than Coltrane's, something he would do again and again for the next five years of their partnership. For all the power of his chording, all the pulsations of his pedal work, Tyner's gift was a lyrical one, no matter how fast he played. As such, he was both a perfect complement and a perfect contrast to his employer.
Davis takes a strong solo here, too, one which bends and stretches the rhythm of the song while implying all the same harmonic ideas. And Jones - well, he was one of the most impressive drummers who ever lived, and you'll begin to understand why every time you play this track and hear a different nuance, a new placing of the kick drum, a subtle use of the hi-hat, a creatively unique approach to the ride cymbal. And, his two choruses of solo are an absolute hoot.
Coltrane comes back to restate the melody more directly than he'd done before, albeit as the band drops the harmonic changes altogether, and then it's all over. I assure you, you won't spend a better eleven and one half minutes today.