The lyrics of two of my favorite jazz standards, “My Favorite Things” and “Tea for Two,” are cheesy, insipid, even infantile bourgeois fantasies; the original vocals seem to me to be sung in that sunny psycho-killer demented spirit:
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
Day will break and I'm gonna wake
and start to bake a sugar cake
for you to take for all the boys to see.
We will raise a family,
a boy for you, and a girl for me,
Can't you see how happy we will be.
Let’s put aside the sexism of the Fifties for just a second, though these lyrics, written by men and sung by women, obviously exude the insularity and privilege of sexism. These lyrics also bring to mind one of my favorite Chekhov quotes from “Gooseberries,” one I use to introduce a section of TRUE FAITH. “The happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness should be impossible.” For I believe the darker explorations of Coltrane and the skepticism of Monk engage more complicated feelings and deeper truths. Coltrane and Monk did not produce an art of consolation, of pure transcendence in the Christian sense (rising above the body. It seems inherent in their Modernism that truth must be embodied, that it lives in the body and the spirit grows out of struggle, out of that writhing in pain and pleasure.
“My Favorite Things” has a simple five note theme which works off a number of variations; “Tea for Two” alternates three and four notes in its insistent theme. I can’t stand Julie Andrews’ and Doris Day’s smile-button versions of the song. But John Coltrane, in his first soprano sax album of the same title (1960), transformed the melody into a compulsive, Eastern snake-charming nudging out the melody and then leaving it by playing two notes played in many octaves. What’s marvelous about Coltrane at this stage in his development as an artist is that he authorizes the hesitation, the holding pattern, the coming to, as part of making more transparent his musical process. In this first recorded version he often returns to the theme to ground his improvisations; retrospectively the leaps and shifts of this first recorded version seem accessible and it became one of his most popular albums.
I know of close to twenty recorded versions Coltrane made of this song: each has its range of moods and tempos (in one interesting version -- where Roy Haynes replaces Elvin Jones -- oddly has more drive than most of the versions that precede it). But perhaps my favorite version is the 18 minute version at the Antibes Jazz festival in 1965 (the second Live at Antibes album on France’s Concert label, released more than 20 years after his death).
His first solo’s relatively familiar, but the second, following McCoy Tyner’s rhythmic modal chords and trills – about eight and a half minutes in, is breathtaking in its tentative and exploratory improvisations. So many voices! He uses multiphonicsand overtones that produce wails, runs that seem like warming up, flutterings,guttural repetitions, audible searches for new fingerings andchord sequences: there’s even a momentary evocation of a samba. The solo is a series of blurrings, disassociations and crossings out of the melody: some passages are taken at break-neck speed, others almost seem like the melody’s standing still in waiting off-stage. Some moments are deeply melancholy, some seemingly frustrated while reaching for a sound, which is to say he repeats a phrase until he figures out where he wants and can only then move on. The solo’s a calling out, it’s an inner voice in church, it beseeches with dissonance and a heightened confusion (this incompletion, this longing is one way I understand the necessity of Coltrane’s shift – after meeting Alice -- to becoming a Muslim a couple of years before this recording). You’ll find infinite fragments of the melody in this version, but The solo can’t be characterized by an act of verbal transcription. What Coltrane manages here for me, with an imagination at the height of his powers, a supreme example of wide-ranging improvisation.
Traditionally the guiding principle of jazz is to take a familiar melody, a community song, and make it your own. But Coltrane revises, steps on, ignores, follows his multiple associations, until Julie Andrews’ sing-song has been deepened, overdubbed (some hip-hop covers revise Motown songs in parallel ways), critiqued, transcended (Coltrane’s spiritual longings in those passages where the voice peels the and melody away). If I had to pinpoint its power it would be that he de-familiarizes the familiar. This technique (yes it’s a technique – Coltrane worked hours a day experimenting with news fingerings and chord sequences) and this vision, these enmeshed threads of beseeching voices in progress. have had more impact on my changing my methodof writing than any poems I’ve read (though Ashbery and other avant-garde poets also see the work of art as continuous movement and change).
Thelonious Monk, in his 1955 version, from the album The Riverside trios (stay away from the late and tentative alternative take which Monk refused to authorize for the album CRISS-CROSS some years later) takes a different path to the same task of de-familiarizing. He uses a more playful and accessible minimalist approach in deforming the “Tea for Two” melody. He hammers the chords almost like a child who doesn’t want to practice: the block chords are insistent, almost simple-minded, but mostly cranky. He satirizes the melody further by tripling the notes in runsand inversions up and down the piano, managing somehow to convey the boring repetitions and burdens of family-life. The solo’s an awkward chant, in places a tantrum. The effect is the same as in Coltrane’s late version of “My Favorite Things”: the song we fell for in our youthful desire to simplify and artificially cheer up experience has been playfully dismantled (Charles Bernstein’s awkward rhyming quatrains, drawing attention to the sing-song artifice of end-rhyme, seem to accomplish similar ironic disfiguring of conventional form).
After hearing these two songs I’d think it would be difficult for a musician to return to swing versions (¾ time) of these tunes and certainly difficult to compose a swing song in that rigid meter. As Whitman said, the door to the barn (desire) is off its hinges. In these two songs, just by example, Coltrane and Monk bring attention to improvisation’s great virtue, extending the imagination to places heretofore barely explored or inhabited.
There’s nothing wrong with artists who are conservators, those who see their jobs as finding their place inside a tradition: their virtues include the nod of recognition, consolation and identification (we are not alone: we share assumptions about continuity and universality). But my personal preference is for a work of art that takes us some place we’ve never been, that challenges ourassumptions, that unsettles what we thought we knew, those works touch my heart as a new close friend might: I love the idea of thinking, I’ve never thought of life that way before, and I’ll never quite see the world in that familiar way again.