Jazz Review My Favorite Things

Café Montmartre, Stan Getz

Prohibition created the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when gangsters owned the illegal booze trade and competed with each other to offer their patrons the best party music, from small private speakeasies to elaborate nightclubs with integrated crowds while the police were paid to look the other way.

Jazz Album Review: My Favorite Things

TitleMy Favorite Things
Musician: John Coltrane (released in 1961)

Reviewed by Jeff Burbank

In 1959, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music” opened on Broadway in New York at a time when show recordings often produced commercial hit songs on the radio. One popular missive from “Sound of Music” was “My Favorite Things,” sung by Broadway star Mary Martin. Who would have known that the melody of that show tune would inspire the innovative saxophonist John Coltrane to produce one of the most renowned albums in the history of jazz music?

“My Favorite Things” is a recording Coltrane made with his new quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Steve Davis on bass. The group recorded the album at Atlantic Records’ studios in New York over three days in October 1960. For the session, Coltrane favored the high-pitched sound of the soprano saxophone for the two tracks on side one (of the phonographic long-playing record of the time) and tenor sax for the pair of tracks on side two. Coltrane at the time was playing what was known as “tonal jazz,” using music modes rather than chord progressions. He and McCoy would provide long solos on the album accompanied by Jones’ beats and brushings on the drums and Davis’ acoustic double bass.

At the time, Coltrane was only recently removed from the Miles Davis Quintet, which he joined in 1958. Coltrane would say that the latitude bandleader and trumpeter Davis gave him allowed him to develop Coltrane’s ability to play various notes at once, which he called “sheets of sound.” Coltrane’s avant garde approach, experimenting and reaching beyond traditional music structures through improvisation, would influence jazz and rock music for years to come.

Coltrane, born in 1926, grew up with a father who played multiple musical instruments, including the violin, and a mother who was a church pianist. He studied the clarinet and horn and later the saxophone, citing the renowned sax player Lester Young as an early inspiration. He studied music in Philadelphia and after a stint in the U.S. Navy (as a band player) during World War II, worked with the Eddie Vinson Band in the 1940s on tenor sax before taking the big step up to Dizzy Gillespie’s top-flight band and modern-jazz man Davis’ group in the 1950s.

By the time of “My Favorite Things,” Coltrane had been recording for Atlantic since 1959, when his album “Giant Steps,” showcasing his “sheets of sound” approach, was released. He cited East Indian “raga” music of Ravi Shankar as an influence. “My Favorite Things” lasts a full 40 minutes. For the title track, Coltrane used his soprano sax to alter the chord progressions and went off on improvisational tangents while Tyner on piano kept the Broadway song’s melody going behind him.

The three other cuts on “My Favorite Things” are standards as well. Coltrane’s playing on Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is more subdued and less impressive but with his tenor sax on “Summertime” (from the show “Porgy and Bess” by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward) he departs again from the song’s “script” with improvised abandon. The record concludes with a raucous rendition of Ira and George Gershwin’s “But Not for Me,” a show tune from 1930’s “Girl Crazy.” The cut features virtuoso playing by both Coltrane and Tyner.

Coltrane died of liver disease at just 40 years old in 1967, abbreviating his brilliant career. In 1998, more than two decades later, “My Favorite Things” was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, perhaps as a way of making up for not awarding Coltrane a Grammy while he was alive. The album finally reached “gold” status for sales in 2001. It remains a classic for its fascinating, innovative sounds and place in jazz history.

The Mob Museum’s final Jazz Nights is Friday, April 29, 6-8 p.m. Free parking for locals. Half-off drinks 5-9 p.m.

Jeff is the Content Development Specialist for The Mob Museum

This review is part of The Mob Museum’s Pop Culture & The Mob Newsletter