My Favorite Things
The 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s Landmark Recording Sessions
– Part 3 –
Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter calls the sessions between Friday October 21st and Wednesday October 26th “the key week in Coltrane’s Atlantic output.”[i] One could easily say it was the key week in Coltrane’s entire, incredibly prolific career. (Acolytes of Coltrane’s landmark album A Love Supreme shall remember that its four movements/songs were all recorded on the single day of December 9, 1964.)
The first of Coltrane’s October 1960 sessions started in the early afternoon. Three of the five takes the group did survive: two of “Village Blues” and one of “My Favorite Things.” Unfortunately, the takes the group made that day of “Equinox” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” were not issued and were tragically destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1976 together with all of Atlantic Records unissued pre-1969 recordings.[ii]
“Village Blues” would be the first glimpse of Coltrane’s new band made available to the public when it was released on Coltrane Jazz in February 1961 together with seven cuts that Coltrane recorded in late 1959 with Miles Davis’s excellent rhythm session of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. While the Coltrane Jazz tracks from the late ’59 session are all excellent, they seem somewhat old-fashioned compared to bluesy, soulful, optimistic “Village Blues.”
McCoy Tyner carries “Village Blues” along with deep piano chords, Steve Davis lays down a simple yet steady bass line, and Elvin’s drumming and cymbal work is loose and light. Coltrane’s tenor sax work is bluesy and relaxed. Mid song, Coltrane hits us with a short spurt of plaintive, searching blowing, but pulls back up as if he only wants to give us a taste of things to come. Tyner’s piano solo is reminiscent of Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. “Village Blues” is solid bridge between Coltrane’s solo work of the late 1950s and Coltrane’s new group and style.
Coltrane then moved on to record “My Favorite Things,” a song the group had started playing live three months before (a bootleg recording exists from one of Coltrane’s July performances at the Showboat in Philadelphia).[iii] Frank Tenot, the Parisian concert promoter, was at the October 21st session and said that witnessing Coltrane play “My Favorite Things” for the first time was “a great shock.” “It was under the supervision of Nesuhi Ertegun … I remember Coltrane at first tried to play tenor, and then for the second take he played soprano, and then there’s a take … where he’s playing soprano and tenor.”[iv]
A regal cymbal crash and deep piano chords announce the stately beginning of “My Favorite Things.” The piano, drums, and bass begin a beautiful, mesmerizing vamp. After two rounds, Coltrane enters, singing through his soprano saxophone … “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens … these are a few of my favorite things.”
Coltrane plays the song’s theme twice and then begins a short, joyous solo full of feeling and wonder. Coltrane ends his solo with a breathless, swirling stream of notes sounding of distant, exotic places. Coltrane gives way to Tyner whose piano solo sparkles with happiness as it slides in and out of deep, trance-like playing.
One can just imagine the amazed, wide-eyed looks of producer Nesuhi Ertegun, engineer Tom Dowd, and promoter Frank Tenot as they witness the amazing, fresh sounds being made. “My Favorite Things” is full of lightness and grace, yet at the same time is fiery and passionate. Each of the four musicians is intent on his instrument, but a special energy seems to pulse between them as they communicate with one another through their playing.
What makes the Coltrane’s October 1960 sessions all the more incredible is the way in which they were performed and recorded. Each song is a complete live performance made in the studio. All the musicians are playing together at once and true individual and group improvisation is taking place. A typical recording session today individually records each musician in a building succession where the next track is recorded on top of the previous ones, for example in the order of drums, guitar, bass, and so on. With recording sessions today, significant technological polishing and tweaking is made to perfect each note and make sure the mix and all of the timing are just right. Today, the real-time artistry and interplay between musicians is lost.
The music that Coltrane and his new group made during the October 1960 sessions in truly of the moment. It has the “freshness of discovery” among the musicians who are learning each other and fusing their individual styles into an innovative new language cohesive group statement.
Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner, “My Favorite Things,” 1961
Recording engineer Tom Dowd must also be considered one of the creators of Coltrane’s music for Atlantic. Dowd was born in 1925, a year before Coltrane, and he grew up playing piano, violin, tuba, and stand-up bass. Dowd studied at City College of New York, and was then drafted into the US Army in 1942. However, instead of being shipped overseas, Dowd was able to work and study in the physics labs of Columbia University as part of the secret Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb. Dowd planned to obtain a degree in nuclear physics when he completed his work on the Manhattan Project. However he decided to abandon his studies based on ethical issues he had with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.[v] Dowd took a job in 1948 as a recording engineer and joined Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records in 1954. It was Dowd’s idea to cut Ray Charles’ recording of “What’d I Say,” and a year later Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” into two parts and release them as the A-side and B-sides of the same single record. Dowd also engineered Atlantic’s first 8-track studio on West 60th Street in 1959 and began recording there in 1960.[vi]
Atlantic Records had an incredibly diverse roster of artists working for them in the late 1950s. “I would be sitting in the studio doing the Coasters at 2 o’clock in the afternoon … Ahmet would call me up and say, ‘Ten o’clock tonight, we’re going to do Mingus.’ You want culture shock? Go from the Coasters to Charlie Mingus in ten hours!” Coltrane and his group were highly serious and professional in the studio.
Dowd recalled that Coltrane would always arrive at least an hour before the recording session was due to start. “He’d stand in the corner, change a reed, a mouthpiece, an instrument, and he’d play arpeggios, practicing things by himself. Then finally he’d get down to something that he wanted to do, and he’d go over the same thing four or five times – there’d just be minute differences.” Coltrane would be so engrossed in warming up and preparing for the session that he often would not notice when the other musicians had arrived. “Finally, when he stopped and turned around, he’d say ‘Hi guys.’ … He was a very intense, very conscientious human being.”[vii]
Nesuhi Ertegun was also surprised by the band’s high level of preparation. “John and the musicians walked in without any sheet music. I was worried until they started playing, and then I could hear that they must have rehearsed on their own time. I noticed there was less back and forth conversation than any other group I recorded.”[viii]
Many years after recording these songs, McCoy Tyner shared his take on why there was so little discussion during Coltrane’s “classic quartet” recording sessions. “He never told you what to do; he just sort of created the atmosphere. I think he picked us because he knew we were dedicated [and] he just let us do whatever [we felt was right.]”[ix]
Advances in recording technology also helped to set the stage for the music Coltrane and his group made during these sessions. Atlantic Records entered the 33-1/3 RPM, 12 inch long play (LP) record business very early, issuing its first album in March of 1949. Prior to the advent of the LP, the 45 rpm recording standard put severe limitations on the length that a recorded song could be, usually no more than four minutes per side. But with the LP format, which allowed up to 30 or 45 minutes of music per side (depending on groove format), musicians could take more time in which to develop their musical statements. Thus we see Coltrane recording “Summertime” which lasts eleven and a half minutes and “My Favorite Things” which lasts close to 14 minutes. Atlantic was also one of the first companies to record in stereo and all of Coltrane’s sessions with Atlantic were recorded this way.[x]
On Monday October 24th, the group returned to the studio for a busy four and half hour session. They recorded Coltrane’s compositions “Central Park West,” “Mr. Syms,” “Exotica” (AKA “Untitled Original”), and the standards “Summertime” and “Body and Soul.” Also recorded were two tracks with rhythm section only, “Lazy Bird” and “In Your Own Sweet Way,” that were released in November 1976 under McCoy Tyner’s name as part of a compilation of music that included Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock.[xi]
The group left the studio for an hour break and then returned at 7:30 PM for a session that went until midnight. They did 11 takes to record six original songs: “Mr. Knight,” “Blues to Elvin,” “Mr. Day,” “Blues to You,” “Blues to Bechet,” and “Satellite.”
“Mr. Knight” is among this writer’s very favorite Coltrane songs. It is pure joy. Steve Davis starts “Mr. Knight” with pulsing bass that goes on for almost half a minute before Elvin dances in, his cymbal work full of Latin tinge. McCoy Tyner layers on top with simple piano chords. Coltrane enters, playing in a lower register, yet still joyful and light. Coltrane paints incredible pictures with his saxophone … big splashes of colorful sound and plaintive searching. Elvin’s drumming is exquisite and Tyner thrills us with a bouncy piano solo with a carnival/Caribbean feel that is light and joyous. “Mr. Knight” connects us with what was going on in 1960, pointing towards all that is possible, all the good that hopefully lies ahead.
“Mr. Day” is like “Mr. Knight” and a steady, simple bass solo starts the song. But the tempo of “Mr. Day” is much faster and Coltrane rips in on tenor with unyielding backing from Tyner whose piano work really helps to swing the song forward. Coltrane’s style is one of happy, energetic searching, and he embellishes the song with spiral like runs on his tenor. The entire effect is one of powerful optimism and elation. Tyner gives a fantastic, powerful solo, his strong left hand gives the effect that there are two piano players on the track. It is clear that Tyner is having a ball. “[Coltrane] used to tell me, ‘keep moving, keep moving’ and that’s exactly what I did.”[xii] Coltrane plunges back in, playing in the upper register and overblowing. Tyner’s final solo blends into bass line and Elvin’s light cymbal work to end the song.
The final session was on Wednesday October 26th from noon until 6PM. The group recorded six songs and the archives show only one take of each. The Cole Porter standard “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” and the Gershwin standard “But Not For Me,” were released in 1962 on the My Favorite Things album. Coltrane’s composition “26-2” was based on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” but was only posthumously released in 1970 on the album The Coltrane Legacy. The final three tracks were all released in 1960 on Coltrane’s Sound: “Liberia,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Equinox.”
“Liberia” is a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” which was part of the repertoire that Gillespie and Charlie Parker played the night that Coltrane first encountered them at their Academy of Music concert in June 1945.[xiii]
“The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was the theme song of a 1948 film based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich. Jerry Brainin wrote the music and Buddy Bernier wrote the lyrics. The movie starred Edward G. Robinson as a nightclub fortune teller whose con game becomes all too real when he begins to actually foresee the future. The song has been covered by numerous artists including Bing Crosby, Paul Desmond, Horace Silver, Stan Getz, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Stitt, Shelly Manne and others.[xiv]
From the first note of Coltrane’s “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” Elvin Jones swings the song forward with his energetic drumming and remarkable cymbal work. Pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Steve Davis play straight ahead, but Jones is full of animation as he flies around the drums. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is brimming with happiness as Coltrane’s earthy tenor saxophone soars ever higher. Underneath Coltrane’s playing, the rhythm section drives the song with a sense of anticipation and wonder. One can’t help but be blown away with the feeling and energy from Coltrane and his band. Tyner gives a sparkling, rhapsodic solo before Coltrane and the others enter to state the theme again and then close the song.
The final song recorded during the October 1960 sessions was Coltrane’s original blues composition “Equinox.” In his description of “Equinox” music Professor Lewis Porter writes “Coltrane was a serious blues player and his blues pieces reflect the desire to get back to a primal mood, and away from the emotionally lighter, harmonically more complex blues of the boppers.”[xv]
Tyner and Jones play a short Latin rhythm to introduce “Equinox.” The rhythm section shifts into the slow theme, the relentless underpinning of piano and bass creates a mysterious, primitive mood. Coltrane comes in on tenor, his playing is slow and deeply moving. After stating the theme twice, Coltrane begins an astounding improvisation that builds and builds emotionally, almost like a preacher exhorting his congregation. Coltrane’s playing shows us darkness and light, sorrow and joy, longing and fulfillment, the unjust and the just. Coltrane completely exposes his inner self through his playing. Elvin intersperses dramatic drum rolls and cymbal crashes throughout the song to add to the mystery and intensity of the piece. McCoy plays beautifully with a light, sophisticated feel; his solo is remarkable and sounds like there are two pianos on the track.
Coltrane’s wife Naima named the song “Equinox.”[xvi] An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the sun, the sun being vertically above the point of reference. John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926, one day before the official autumn equinox of that year. Coltrane’s biographer Dr. C.O. Simpkins was so moved by the song that he titled the first chapter of his book “Equinox.”
Coltrane’s tenor saxophone work on “Equinox” is full of profound searching and narration, as if he is simultaneously trying to explain and comprehend life at the same time. “Equinox” could be considered the culmination of Coltrane’s life to that point, an eight and a half minute summation of all that he has learned, and all that he still wants to know. It is the most sincere, thoughtful single piece of music this author has ever heard. It is so unique, nuanced, and emotion provoking that it can be listened to repeatedly without becoming tiresome.
“Equinox” wasn’t released until 1964 when Atlantic issued the album Coltrane’s Sound. Before recording it, Coltrane performed “Equinox” live several times, including during the December 1959 session with Miles Davis’ rhythm section, at the 1960 Monterrey Jazz Festival, during other stops on his initial tour, and during the Friday October 21 session. Unfortunately, the other official recordings of “Equinox” by Atlantic were never issued and subsequently lost in the warehouse fire. Further, unlike “Naima,” “My Favorite Things” and future songs he would records, “Equinox” did not a become part of Coltrane’s live repertoire and was not a popular favorite while he was alive. (Coltrane’s discography shows that he performed “Equinox” during a performance at Sutherland Hotel in Chicago in March 1961, but there are no other records of his playing it during the remainder of his career.) Luckily, Atlantic included “Equinox” as the centerpiece of the six songs on the Best of John Coltrane album they released in 1970 and the song has grown in stature since then.
Eighteen of the nineteen songs Coltrane and his quartet recorded during the October 1960 sessions were originally released over four Atlantic Records albums during Coltrane’s life:
– Coltrane Jazz (released Feb 1961)
– My Favorite Things (released March 1961)
– Coltrane Plays the Blues (released June 1962)
– Coltrane’s Sound (released June 1964)
The first four Coltrane album covers from Atlantic all had photos of Coltrane on them. However, Atlantic took a different route for the next covers. Neshui Ertegun was a lover and collector of avant-garde art and he commissioned artist Marty Norman to create the abstract, Matisse-like cover for Coltrane Plays the Blues, released in 1962. Ertegun then hired artist Marvin Israel to create the cover art for Coltrane’s Sound, a surreal, sliced up rendering of Coltrane’s head and shoulders (Marvin Israel also did a similar picture of saxophonist Sonny Stitt for the Atlantic album Stitt Plays Bird which was released in 1963). By the time Coltrane’s Sound was released in 1964, Coltrane had recorded multiple albums with his new label Impulse, each of which had a discrete cover, usually a photo of Coltrane playing. When Coltrane first got a copy of Coltrane’s Sound, he was in a club preparing for a show. He did not comment but was said to look very puzzled as he examined the result.
Coltrane’s popularity shot up after My Favorite Things was released in March of 1961. The record got serious radio play and sold 50,000 copies during its first year of release, tremendous results for a jazz album.[xvii] Coltrane was named 1961 Jazzman of the Year by Down Beat magazine and won best musician in multiple categories including tenor saxophone and miscellaneous instrument (soprano sax).[xviii] But instead of resting on his laurels and consolidating his fan base and record sales, Coltrane pushed foward.
In April of 1961 John Coltrane signed a recording contract with the newly formed Impulse! Records, a division of ABC-Paramount Records. Coltrane and Ray Charles were both represented by the Shaw Agency who had helped to engineer Charles’ defection from Atlantic to ABC in late 1959 with an agreement that was unheard of in the industry. The deal that lured Coltrane to Impulse from Atlantic was also extremely lucrative and included a $10,000 advance for the first year, with two-year options that rose to $20,000 per year thereafter.[xix]
Shortly after the October 1960 recording sessions for Atlantic, Coltrane started a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy whom he had met in 1954 during a recording session with Johnny Hodges in L.A. Dolphy played the alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute and had a highly inventive sound and style of playing that some (including Dolphy) likened to the sound of birds. On May 23rd, Dolphy joined Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Reggie Workman who had just replaced Steve Davis on bass, and a small orchestra of additional jazz musicians for the first of the now famous Africa/Brass album sessions with Impulse.
Two days later, on May 25, 1961, Coltrane, Tyner, Jones, Workman, bassist Art Davis, Dolphy and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard would record the album Olé Coltrane, Coltrane’s final work for Atlantic. The title song “Olé” had the working title “Venga Vallejo” and included both Reggie Workman and Art Davis on bass, Coltrane on soprano sax, a hypnotic flute solo by Dolphy, a remarkable trumpet solo by Freddie Hubbard that conjures images of the conquistadors, and a superb piano solo by Tyner with hints of Spain and India. (During the middle ages, Spain was a melting pot of cultures and religions with major influences from the Islamic world as well as an influx of Roma Gypsies who originally migrated into Europe from India around 1000 AD).
Elvin Jones and Eric Dolphy, 1961
During the Olé Coltrane session the group also recorded “Dahomey Dance” in honor of the newly independent African Republic Dahomey. Coltrane lays down a rich, bluesy solo with some very fast, occasionally muddled, runs on tenor sax, followed by an expressive Hubbard solo on trumpet. Eric Dolphy then bounces into “Dahomey Dance” with a bubbly, squeaky, somewhat Parker-esque solo on alto sax that is pure fun. Tyner jumps in with a sparkly piano solo; then all of the horns come in to restate the theme and close the song.
During 1961 and 1962, when Coltrane’s popularity was cresting, the public was assaulted with a variety of Coltrane material that had been recorded at different times. Coltrane’s sound and style had changed rapidly during his solo career, and the intermingled release of records from different labels and time periods was confusing to the public. For example, in 1961 there were five Coltrane albums released to the public (in the following order):
– Coltrane Jazz (Atlantic, recorded November & December 1959 & October 1960)
– My Favorite Things (Atlantic, recorded October 1960)
– Bags & Trane (Atlantic, recorded January 1959)
– Africa/Brass (Impulse, recorded May and June I961)
– Settin’ the Pace (Prestige, recorded March 1958)
1962 saw a similarly confusing series of Coltrane albums come out with the release of Olé Coltrane in February (recorded in May 1961), Live at the Village Vanguard in March (recorded in November 1961), and Coltrane Plays the Blues in July (recorded in October 1960).
Despite being savaged by critics for much of his career, Coltrane was always polite and granted numerous interviews to the press. Coltrane was a soft spoken person and in interviews he could be somewhat guarded. But he always gave very thoughtful, intelligent answers and with his few words he said much.
A favorite topic of most writers was to ask Coltrane to explain what he was trying to say with his music and if he thought people understood his work. “I never even thought about whether or not [listeners] understand what I’m doing … [t]he emotional reaction is all that matters. As long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood. After all, I loved music myself long before I could identify a G Minor Seventh chord.”[xx]
Coltrane’s earliest known recordings are from 1945 when he performed a number of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tunes together with a few of his US Navy band mates. Lewis Porter’s comments about these recording are quite insightful noting Coltrane “was not, as one might have thought, a great talent who took a long time to get recognized. He … did not begin with obvious exceptional talent [and] was not some isolated genius coming up with brilliant flashes of inspiration … but a normal person growing and developing in a fortunately inspired circle of musicians.” [xxi]
It is remarkable how much Coltrane is revered by his musical contemporaries and the young musicians that he inspired. It is clear from the many dozens of interviews of people who knew Coltrane that he was a sincere, gentle guy who had to struggle through much adversity and many hardships to achieve what he did.
There is a photo of Coltrane from the late 1940s with a group of his musician friends in Philadelphia. The young men look very happy and full of youthful exuberance, and the smile on Coltrane’s face is particularly radiant. But there are very few pictures of Coltrane after this where he is smiling.
Coltrane is among the most dedicated artists in history and he was completely invested in his music and quest for higher meaning. His work ethic and focus on improvement is unrivaled in music and he was religious about practicing throughout his career. McCoy Tyner noted that even at the peak of his career Coltrane “would practice during breaks in the club. He was just diligent, very dedicated [and on] a mission in terms of developing himself.”[xxii]
Coltrane would tragically die on July 16, 1967 from liver cancer; two months shy of his 41st birthday and a mere six and a half years after his October 1960 sessions for Atlantic. His funeral was attended by over 1000 people. A group of Coltrane’s protégés performed a concert during the wake and his friend Calvin Massey read Coltrane’s prayer from the notes to the album A Love Supreme. Since Coltrane’s death, each of the main houses he lived in has been purchased and made into an historic location and landmarks have been erected in his honor in Hamlet and High Point, North Carolina.
One of Coltrane’s favorite topics outside of music was Einstein’s theory of relativity and his contemporaries marveled at seeing Coltrane reading Einstein’s book on the subject.[xxiii] Einstein had a truly incredible imagination and he would often conduct thought experiments to help him develop a new theory. In discovering relativity, Einstein recounted that he had imagined himself racing through space alongside a beam of light.[xxiv] I can imagine Coltrane dreaming of the same race as he performed many of the songs recorded during those three key October days in 1960. If you listen to them closely, maybe you can imagine it too.
Copyright 2010, Shawl Lobree, all rights reserved.
(The images and photography herein are copyright of their respective owners.)
Check out the excellent NPR radio program (link below) from 10-21-2010 by journalist Robin Washington on the 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” The piece contains live interviews of McCoy Tyner and Steve Kuhn recalling their contributions to the song, archival interviews of John Coltrane from 1958 and Elvin Jones from 1988, and numerous audio clips of “My Favorite Things” as performed by Coltrane and others (including a complete version of the October 21, 1960 studio recording).
[i] Lewis Porter, liner notes The Heavyweight Champion: John Coltrane the Complete Atlantic Recordings, May 1995.
[ii] Joel Dorn, May 1995, Liner notes, The Heavyweight Champion: John Coltrane the Complete Atlantic Recordings.
[iii] DeVito, p. 588.
[iv] Kahn, p. 43.
[vii] Ertegun, p. 135.
[viii] Thomas, p. 115.
[ix] McCoy Tyner interview, Trane Tracks: The Legacy of John Coltrane, DVD, 2005.
[xi] DeVito, p. 595.
[xii] Tyner interview.
[xiii] Porter, p. 188.
[xiv] Sandra Burlingame, ” The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948),” www.jazzstandards.com/compositions-2/thenighthasathousandeyes.htm
[xv] Porter, liner notes, Heavyweight Champion, p. 21.
[xvi] Porter, p. 184.
[xvii] Thomas, p. 133.
[xviii] Porter, liner notes, Heavyweight Champion, p. 28.
[xix] Ashley Kahn, The House that Trane Built: the Story of Impulse Records, 2006, p. 49.
[xx] Simpkins, p. 182.
[xxi] Porter, p. 50.
[xxii] Tyner interview, Trane Tracks, 2005.
[xxiii] Thomas, p. 188.
[xxiv] Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson (2007).