Improving Upon Perfection, Part Three: Rodgers & Hammerstein & Coltrane

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Check it out:

Most people, at least post Baby Boom generation, know this from the insufferable, I mean delightful family masterpiece, The Sound of Music.

It was, and remains, an enduring tradition within jazz for musicians to take well-known standards and put their own spin on them. Within that framework, it has been especially gratifying when artists take overly familiar, or corny songs, and give them an entirely new identity.

That was not the case with Coltrane when he chose “My Favorite Things”: it was obvious he deeply appreciated and respected the craftmanship and sensibility of the Rodgers-Hammerstein juggernaut (more on them, and this composition, here), and he famously utilized this innocuous, hummable tune into a sprawling (and later, in incendiary live performances, cavernous) workout.

In a longer piece appraising the unique and quite possibly unrivaled genius of Coltrane (HERE) I discuss where he was –and where he was headed– during the recording of what turned out to be one of his signature performances:

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument.

One of my personal favorite (of the many, recorded) versions is the one where the “classic quartet” is augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy, on flute. (A bit more about this classic quartet, which some consider the best collective in jazz history, and the quintet that gets my nod for that title, HERE.)

Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals. (Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows how I feel about ED, and some of that love can be found HERE.)

On this live recording it’s easier to appreciate another oft-overlooked genius, McCoy Tyner (a proper celebration of him HERE). You can see, clearly, how fluid Tyner’s runs are, how effortlessly he owns the instrument, and how seamlessly he accompanies Trane, while Jones handles the hush and thunder, and Garrison holds down the fort, calm and collected as always. It is truly the case of perfection being taken to another level, something to smile at and savor. It might become one of your favorite things.

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Improving Upon Perfection, Part Three: Rodgers & Hammerstein & Coltrane

Check it out:

Most people, at least post Baby Boom generation, know this from the insufferable, I mean delightful family masterpiece, The Sound of Music.

It was, and remains, an enduring tradition within jazz for musicians to take well-known standards and put their own spin on them. Within that framework, it has been especially gratifying when artists take overly familiar, or corny songs, and give them an entirely new identity.

That was not the case with Coltrane when he chose “My Favorite Things”: it was obvious he deeply appreciated and respected the craftmanship and sensibility of the Rodgers-Hammerstein juggernaut (more on them, and this composition, here), and he famously utilized this innocuous, hummable tune into a sprawling (and later, in incendiary live performances, cavernous) workout.

In a longer piece appraising the unique and quite possibly unrivaled genius of Coltrane (HERE) I discuss where he was –and where he was headed– during the recording of what turned out to be one of his signature performances:

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument.

One of my personal favorite (of the many, recorded) versions is the one where the “classic quartet” is augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy, on flute. (A bit more about this classic quartet, which some consider the best collective in jazz history, and the quintet that gets my nod for that title, HERE.)

Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals. (Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows how I feel about ED, and some of that love can be found HERE.)

On this live recording it’s easier to appreciate another oft-overlooked genius, McCoy Tyner (a proper celebration of him HERE). You can see, clearly, how fluid Tyner’s runs are, how effortlessly he owns the instrument, and how seamlessly he accompanies Trane, while Jones handles the hush and thunder, and Garrison holds down the fort, calm and collected as always. It is truly the case of perfection being taken to another level, something to smile at and savor. It might become one of your favorite things.

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Three For J.C.

It’s a big day for J.C.

In the spirit of Christmas, I’d like to celebrate J.C. with some…J.C.

I’m speaking, of course, about John Coltrane.

And I’ll try to resist the urge to make any potentially upsetting observations about the relative merits of music vs. religion, or the ways in which Coltrane’s message can never be corrupted. Instead, I’ll just offer thanks and praises (and anyone who knows me knows I’m not being sardonic). I also will point out that some people take this very seriously indeed.

“My Favorite Things” (with Eric Dolphy):

“Central Park West”:

“Dear Lord”:

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New Year’s Eve: The Vertiginous Event

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Before moving forward after looking backward (getting on with 2010 after remembering and assessing the last decade, one movie, album and sporting event at a time) New Year’s Eve is that vertiginous event where you are recalling –or trying to forget– the past while anticipating –or dreading– the future, but at the same time living utterly in the moment.

This year is slightly different, because we are not only reflecting on the last twelve months, but the last ten years. I’ll join the cliched chorus and marvel at how fast it goes. Ten years, already? Exactly a decade ago I was up in the Big Apple, determined to see in the new millennium even if meant going down with the ship. Remember how terrified people were about Y2K? The clocks would stop, the computers would crash, Reality TV would disappear, et cetera. Of course, we made it through in one piece. If Reality TV is the price we had to pay for surviving the infamous fin de siecle, then so be it.

Through a combination of dumb luck and the audacity to hope (abetted by a full night of celebratory end-of-the-world cocktails) my friends and I stumbled right out into the middle of Times Square — which had been on total lockdown for more than two days (we ran into people who’d stood in place for 36 hours or more, pissing into cups and freezing to death in slow motion under their multiple layers): the folks who wanted to witness history in real time were packed in barricaded city blocks, behind ropes and more cops than there are donuts (or cops) at a Krispy Kreme convention. Long story short: a few of us were simply trying to get back home to watch the New Year (or obliteration of the planet) happen on TV, like any reasonable American would do. As it turned out, we ended up watching the ball drop less than five hundred feet in front of us. Once in a lifetime, one in a million. We not only lived, but lived to tell about it. And, despite the awkward oversight that enabled us to slip not-so-innocently under a chained line to mingle with the crowd, the security was stellar that whole weekend. Cops were everywhere and they had things under control. But it was more than that: once the clock turned to 2000 the craziest (and coolest) city in the world was partying like it was…well, 1999. And there was nothing but love and happiness amidst that spectacle. People were happy, perhaps exhilirated to still be alive. Hugs and high-fives abounded, and I did not see a single act of violence or ill-will as midnight lurched toward the hangover of the century. Good times, to be certain.

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And I remember thinking: what a great time to be alive. What a positive omen for a new century. Of course, things didn’t quite pan out as predicted that evening. In the same city, less than two years later, everything changed forever. (In cities all over the country, less than one year later, the worst president in the history of America weaseled in on a technicality, ensuring that the idiotic and apathetic would ruin it for the rest of us, as usual.) It seemed like the rest of the decade was one calamity or crisis after another, testing even our capacity to absorb the inexplicable. And we still managed to make it, scarred and scared, to another decade. Another chance to make good on the work that needs to be done. For all of our sakes, let’s hope we do better this time around.

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I went into 2009 prepared to deal with the inevitable passing of my best furry friend, and could not have imagined it would end up happening many months sooner than expected. That hurt. It still stings, every single day, but as anyone who has experienced any kind of loss knows, the harder it is, the better it was. It’s never enough to compensate for the pain by acknowledging the profundity of the love, but it helps. That was the big event for me this past year and it feels right to remember that, now, while celebrating that he was with me for just about a decade. Bittersweet, to be certain, but as Big Head Todd would say, more sweet than bitter.

And, as always, it’s a hell of a lot easier to keep these things in perspective by considering the (increasing) number of our brothers and sisters who are struggling just to be, here and overseas. And for entirely too many people (inside our borders but especially beyond) every year is only about one thing, survival. Here’s hoping better times (financially, spiritually) are on the horizon for all, but mostly for those that need it the most. Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate –and savor– the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

Friends, family, health, music, movies, books, good food and drink, and happy memories yet to be made. Those are some of my favorite things, and I am blessed to have enjoyed all in abundance throughout the 2000’s.  Here’s toasting much more of same, for as long as all of us are able to keep the party going.

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Jazz Is Recession-Proof

John Coltrane.

Eric Dolphy.

McCoy Tyner.

Elvin Jones.

Any questions?

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