I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.”
— John Coltrane, 1960, Down Beat magazine
In the 1960s, many jazz musicians, such as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy, expanded the parameters of their music with respect to form, melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture. They broke down traditional techniques and incorporated previously unheard scales, harmonic progressions, and compositional structures. They also brought improvisation to new levels of intensity and complexity, taking greater liberties with respect to the duration, content, and structure of solos, and delving into an unprecedented amount of group improvisation. The resulting music was given many names: free jazz, avant garde, the “new thing.” As the decade ended, however, this style of jazz was largely abandoned in favor of more “psychedelic” electronic sounds and jazz-rock fusion.
Today, many people of a younger generation, musicians and non-musicians alike, are looking for what Michael Bruce McDonald calls “an experience of the sacred” (275). In this search they are rediscovering avant garde jazz for the numinous properties with which it was often consciously imbued by its greatest purveyors, notably Sun Ra (who claimed to hail from the planet Saturn and sought to produce music that corroborated his claim) and John Coltrane (whose fascination with “outer space” themes manifested itself more in mystical and spiritual explorations than in science-fiction fantasies).
Interestingly, one of Coltrane’s favorite vehicles for his combos’ sonic explorations was the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II tune “My Favorite Things” from the musical The Sound of Music. Coltrane first recorded this piece in 1960 in an innovative interpretation that already sounded radically different from the original, catching Coltrane in the formative stages of his new, modally-based, “avant garde” sound. In the ensuing seven years, until his death in 1967, Coltrane made “My Favorite Things” a regular part of his concert repertoire. At least eighteen of these performances have been released on recording (Cole 228-248). The preponderance of recordings of this single piece, spanning the full development of Coltrane’s work in the avant garde, makes it uniquely suited to careful comparison and analysis, a useful tool for the examination of his stylistic development.
This project will use “My Favorite Things” as just such a tool. Following an introductory exploration of both Coltrane’s musical career prior to 1960 and the “standard” form of “My Favorite Things,” the paper will compare and contrast four of Coltrane’s recordings of the piece: his 1960 studio recording, a more extended performance at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival, the last recording of the piece by his “classic quartet” at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, and a radically evolved 57-minute performance from 1966 in Tokyo by his new quintet. These examinations will reveal the evolution of both Coltrane’s own playing and the dynamics of his group’s interplay. They will also reflect the influence of African, Indian, and Western art music upon Coltrane and the modal and free styles of jazz in the 1960s. Finally, a discussion of the motivations behind Coltrane’s musical “quest” (as characterized by Eric Nisenson) will further illuminate his stylistic development.
This was Coltrane’s first recorded performance of “My Favorite Things” and his only studio recording of it. It was made during a time of transition for Coltrane. While under contract with Atlantic Records (1959-1961), he underwent his “sheets of sound” phase, documented most extensively on his 1959 album Giant Steps. Within a year, when the recording of “My Favorite Things” was made, the influence of Miles Davis’ modal explorations (of which Coltrane was a part, chiefly on the Kind of Blue album) was clearly audible in