PHAROAH SANDERS / “My Favorite Things”
Winter. 1964. It’s cold in Northfield, Minnesota. Colder than I had ever been in my life up to that point. Tunnels connected all of the main buildings on campus and one week I never went outside at all. Over the break, instead of going back to New Orleans to celebrate Christmas, I talked my way onto an exchange between students at Carleton College and students at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Although no official would come right out and say it, the exchange was supposed to be white students from Carleton and black students from Fisk but the guidelines only said students of…. Me being me, I argue that I was a student of and I was eligible and since there was room on the rooster, well, you know….
I double-D enjoyed my sojourn at Fisk, especially getting the opportunity to meet and converse with author John Oliver Killens. His World War II novel And Then We Heard The Thunder was one of my favorite books.
But the real high point of the exchange happened when I was sitting in the student lounge just soaking up the ambience. At Carleton, out of approximately 1200 students, only 13 of us were black and of that 13, eight were newly arrived.
I learned to play bridge at Carleton, I dug playing bid whist at Fisk. I’ve got all kinds of crazy memories but nothing stands out more so than the fact that this is when I feel completely and forever in love.
Everybody has heard the cliché about one day suddenly falling in love with someone you already knew. I already knew John Coltrane, but at Fisk, curled into a big lounge chair maybe only five feet from a huge floor speaker, I gave my heart to Trane while listening to “My Favorite Things,” which they played seemed like everyday at least two or three times in the afternoons.
For some reason, it clicked. I got it. It got me. I was already a budding jazz fan and a DJ on Carleton’s college radio station. I did a Sunday night jazz show and had played the entirety of Charlie Mingus’ Black Saint And The Sinner Lady one night, and even at one point had worn my sweater across my back with its arms tied around my shoulder like I saw in a picture of Miles Davis. I stopped doing that when I saw myself reflected in the glass front door of the dorm, shocked to see myself doing something that so obviously was not me.
I was even more shocked to find myself enthralled by Coltrane because I had never liked him up to that point. Indeed, I used to walk out on some of his music when it came on the radio. However, “My Favorite Things” was aptly named because John Coltrane became my favorite musician.
I wasn’t the only one smitten by Trane’s hip version of the square-ass Julie Andrew’s Sound of Music song. I know, I know, Julie Andrews didn’t write the song; it’s an Oscar Hammerstein composition but that was the way I and I suppose many, many other jazz fans identified the song. With one song, Trane virtually started a three-pronged revolution. 1. He reintroduced the soprano saxophone as a major instrument in jazz. 2. He reinforced the use of ¾ (AKA “waltz”) time. 3. He popularized blowing blues atop modal vamps.
I know now that Coltrane was not the first to do any of those things but the point is after Trane did it there came a deluge. Before Trane hardly any of the modern jazz players did; after Trane almost all of them did. While the song may not sound so radical today, it sure was a pleasant surprise then, a surprise that set new standards for all of modern jazz.
Starting with Coltrane’s classic version here are ten different—some of them very, very different—takes on “My Favorite Things.” All of these versions are heavily indebted to John Coltrane.
Mtume, you are guaranteed to love the elegance of the Cyrus Chestnut and Anita Baker lilting, gentle sway. Or perhaps you’ll be interested in the tension within the classical-inspired Al Jarreau duet with opera diva Kathleen Battle. On the other hand, you’ll probably be a little put off by the Turtle Island String Quartet arrangement based on Coltrane’s solo.
I dig Spanish singer Anna Luna's fast-paced canter through the song, the supporting quartet smoothly running the changes like a show horse effortlessly and gracefully clearing jumps. Then you have French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc's solo deconstruction of the song, almost completely abandoning the melody for a harmonic investigation that has no intention of swinging in a traditional sense but has an attractive flow all of its own.
Trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson is typically, for him, high notes and full throated in his declarations abetted by the saxophone wizardry of George Adams.
For me, what singer Betty Carter manages to do in one and a half minutes is nothing short of breathtaking. I’m especially feeling how she holds that closing note but really I dig everything about Ms. Carter’s unique take, especially the way she phrases and how hard she swings.
Listening to a late period version by Johnny Hartman recorded in Japan with Japanese musicians just deepens my intense disappointment that Trane and Johnny Hartman had not cut a second, third, or fourth album. Man, that would have been supremely a favorite and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.
And finally, I dig deep into my collection to bring you a concert bootleg by Pharoah Sanders featuring the vocal work of Mr. Dwight Tribble. Recorded by someone in the audience at a performance in Santa Cruz, California on March 19, 2001, this (obviously) non-commercial tape is a collector’s item passed around among serious Pharoah phreaks (of which I am obviously one). This is a beautiful extension of what Trane started, absolutely beautiful!
I’m making this version my feature—most of you will probably not get it anywhere else but here at BoL.
And, oh, speaking of March. At the end of March I de-assed Northfield before the Fisk exchange students arrived. It was still snowing. Minnesota winters were definitely not among my favorite things.
* * *
Get your versions here:
John Coltrane on My Favorite Things.
Cyrus Chestnut with Anita Baker on Cyrus Chestnut.
Al Jarreau with Kathleen Battle on Tenderness.
Turtle Island String Quartet on A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.
Anna Luna on Sketches.
Jean-Michel Pilc on Follow Me.
Hannibal Marvin Peterson on Hannibal In Berlin.
Betty Carter on Inside Betty Carter.
Johnny Hartman on For Trane.
Pharoah Sanders not commercially available.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
I like how Pilc goes way off You're right, Baba, I am guaranteed to like the Cyrus/Anita version. In fact, I already know this one. I was still sales repping for WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) when Cyrus' album came out. Everybody at the company was enthralled with Anita's vocals on this track and on "Summertime" (from the same album). Everyone was hoping Anita would do an entire jazz album in the same vein. For whatever reason, it didn't happen. Never too late, I guess. On the other hand, I am definitely not interested in the Jarreau/Battle duet. Man, that's terrible. Coincidentally, I remember selling this album too. At the time, it was supposed to be a big return to form - both artistically and commercially - for Al. That didn't happen just like the Anita jazz album didn't happen. Back to the song: this is a bad combination. Battle's operatic vocals really don't work in this context. It's an instant click to the trash for me. You called the Turtle Island version right too. Not digging it. That one's not awful like the Jarreau/Battle mess, it's just not to my liking. The Anna Luna is decent. I didn't mind listening to it but I'm not exactly going to be tattooing Ms. Luna's name across my heart either. The Pharoah Sanders version is, for me, sabotaged by the bad sound quality. I liked it at times - Dwight Tribble sounds great - but overall, the bootleg audio is just too distracting for me to really get into it. Enough of that. Let me talk about the versions I really did like. First, the Johnny Hartman. That record swings in such an impecable manner that the banal lyrics even sound listenable. I'm familiar with Mr. Hartman's ballad work and slower stuff, but I didn't know he could sound this light on his feet (so to speak). My favorite of these is the unlikeliest. It's the Jean-Michel Pilc solo version. I intended to hate it all the way through, instead I found myself getting more and more into what he was doing. He takes such a fatalistic approach to playing a tune that was originally about la-tra-la'ing through flower fields. I dig it a lot. I like how Pilc goes way off into some deep vs. light notes thing and eventually it gets difficult to even tell what song he's playing. Then right at the end he brings the melody back, playing it so slowly and with such a forlorn touch that it sounds like a eulogy to its own prettiness. Very, very nice. —Mtume ya Salaam
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