How John Coltrane Introduced the World to His Radical Sound in the Groundbreaking Recording of “My Favorite Things”

John Coltrane released “more sig­nif­i­cant works” than his 1960 “My Favorite Things,” says Robin Wash­ing­ton in a PRX doc­u­men­tary on the clas­sic rework­ing of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broad­way hit. “A Love Supreme” is often cit­ed as the zenith of the saxophonist’s career. “But if you tried to explain that song to an aver­age lis­ten­er, you would lose them. [“My Favorite Things”] is a defin­i­tive work that every­one knows, and any­one can lis­ten to, and the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry of its evo­lu­tion is some­thing every­one can share and enjoy.” The song is acces­si­ble, a com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful hit, and it is also an exper­i­men­tal mas­ter­piece.

Indeed, “My Favorite Things” may be the per­fect intro­duc­tion to Coltrane’s exper­i­men­tal­ism. After the dizzy­ing chord changes of 1959’s “Giant Steps,” this 14-minute, two-chord excur­sion pat­terned on the ragas of Ravi Shankar announced Coltrane’s move into the modal forms he refined until his death in 1967, as well as his embrace of the sopra­no sax­o­phone and his new quar­tet. It became “Coltrane’s most request­ed tune,” says Ed Wheel­er in The World Accord­ing to John Coltrane, “and a bridge to a broad pub­lic audi­ence.”

Coltrane’s take is also mes­mer­iz­ing, trance-induc­ing, “often com­pared to a whirling dervish,” notes the Poly­phon­ic video above, a ref­er­ence to the Sufi med­i­ta­tion tech­nique of spin­ning in a cir­cle. It’s an unlike­ly song choice for the exer­cise, which makes it all the more fas­ci­nat­ing. The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final Broad­way col­lab­o­ra­tion, was an “instant clas­sic,” and every­one who’d seen it walked away hum­ming the tune to “My Favorite Things.” By 1960, it had become a stan­dard, with sev­er­al cov­er ver­sions released by Leslie Uggams, The Pete King Chorale, the Hi-Lo’s, and the Nor­man Luboff Choir.

Hun­dreds more cov­ers would fol­low. None of them sound­ed like Coltrane’s. The modal form—in which musi­cians impro­vise in dif­fer­ent kinds of scales over sim­pli­fied chord structures—created the “open free­dom” in music explored on Miles Davis’ path­break­ing Kind of Blue, on which Coltrane played tenor sax. (It was Davis who bought Coltrane his first sopra­no sax that year.) Coltrane’s use of modal form in adap­ta­tions of pop­u­lar stan­dards like “My Favorite Things” and George Gershwin’s “Sum­mer­time” from Por­gy and Bess was an explic­it strat­e­gy to court a wider pub­lic, using the famil­iar to ori­ent his lis­ten­ers to the new.

The video essay brings in the exper­tise of musi­cian, com­pos­er, and YouTu­ber Adam Neely, who explains what makes Rogers and Hammerstein’s clas­sic unique among show tunes, and why it appealed to Coltrane as the cen­ter­piece of the 1961 album of the same name. The song’s unusu­al form and struc­ture allow the same melody to be played over both major and minor chords. Coltrane’s mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the song reduces it to the two ton­ics, E major and E minor, over which he and the band solo, intro­duc­ing a shift­ing tonal­i­ty and mood to the melody with each chord change.

Neely goes into greater depth, but it’s over­all an acces­si­ble expla­na­tion of Coltrane’s very acces­si­ble, yet ver­tig­i­nous­ly deep, “My Favorite Things.” Maybe only one ques­tion remains. Coltrane’s ren­di­tion came out four years before Julie Andrews’ icon­ic per­for­mance in the film adap­ta­tion of The Sound of Music, evok­ing the obvi­ous ques­tion,” says Wash­ing­ton: “Did he influ­ence her?”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jazz Decon­struct­ed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Ground­break­ing and Rad­i­cal?

John Coltrane Draws a Pic­ture Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­ics of Music

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Mean­ing of Music in the Human Expe­ri­ence: Lis­ten to One of His Final Inter­views (1966)

Stream the “Com­plete” John Coltrane Playlist: A 94-Hour Jour­ney Through 700+ Trans­for­ma­tive Tracks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.