Coltrane was an analog remixer

If you’re in a band, chances are you feel like you’re supposed to be writing your own material. If you write your own songs, you can make more money from the publishing rights in addition to your album sales (should you, improbably, be selling albums.) Writing your own stuff isn’t just a financial consideration. The influence of Bob Dylan and the Beatles created the expectation that popular musicians would mostly be writing their own material.

Before the mid-sixties, it was a different story. Pop and jazz artists were mostly interpreting existing, familiar material, and only rarely writing new stuff. Even the most prolific and brilliant jazz composers like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk devoted album after album to arrangements of standards. Nobody arranged standards more radically and personally than John Coltrane.

My Favorite Things

The emblematic Coltrane remake is “My Favorite Things” from his classic album by the same name.

Coltrane’s arrangement of this tune bears the same relationship to the one in The Sound Of Music as “Hard Knock Life” by Jay-Z bears to Annie. Jazz arranging uses different technology than sampling and remixing, but it makes the same musical statement. It’s a stamp of personal ownership on a familiar piece of public musical property.

I bought Coltrane’s album when I was eighteen or nineteen after hearing Jerry Garcia and many other musicians rave about it. On the first pass, I wasn’t impressed. A corny showtune played on soprano sax, whee! Now I experience Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” as the mind-expanding flight of imagination I was promised, but I had to grow up a little to appreciate it. I eventually developed such an obsession with it that when I had a jazz band, I insisted that we perform it regularly, and that we include it on our one CD.

Coltrane and looping

Coltrane had a way of anticipating what music would sound like in the future. He was particularly prescient about the importance of looped basslines. Jazz bass is usually a complex semi-improvised stream of quarter notes. But Coltrane liked to have his bassists play strictly structured two-bar loops. On “My Favorite Things,” Jimmy Garrison plays a a simple pattern on the note E identically for almost the entire duration of the song. This kind of bassline anticipates the looped, sequenced and sampled bass parts in hip-hop and other electronic music. The idea was probably inspired in part by the Ravi Shankar albums Coltrane was listening to at the time.

Coltrane was also prescient in his liking for open-ended loops on a single chord, or a few repeating chords from a single scale. This is the basic structure of nearly all forms of electronic music. Like James Brown and the hip-hop artists he inspired, Coltrane relied a lot on the “repeat until cue” instruction. The E major and E minor parts in “My Favorite Things” are open-ended loops. You play each one as long as you feel like playing it, and then signal the band that it’s time to continue to the next section by playing the “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” melody.

But Not For Me

The album My Favorite Things is most famous for its title track, but it also includes three other startling reinterpretations of standards. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” implies a doubletime feel in places and stretches the melody like silly putty. “Summertime” is played fast, with an aggressive feel and crunchy, dissonant chord voicings. Finally, “But Not For Me” gets transformed almost as radically as the title track. Here’s a conventional version by Chet Baker:

And here’s Coltrane’s arrangement.

Should we consider Coltrane’s arrangement to be the same piece of music as the Gershwin original? The most obvious change is the first four bars. In the Gershwin tune, the line “They’re writing songs of love but not for me” runs over a simple ii-V-I progression in E flat. Coltrane’s first four bars are a sprint through the keys of E♭, B and G via those keys’ respective dominant chords. The bassline spells out the descending E flat whole tone scale: Eb, F♯7/C♯, B, D7/A, G, B♭7/F, Eb. Coltrane rewrites the melody completely to fit this new chord progression.

Coltrane inserts some other new structural elements into “But Not For Me.” He adds a long tag section where he lifts unexpectedly up to a few distant minor keys for eight bars each. There’s also the extremely extended open-ended tag on the ii-V-iii-VI turnaround. If you call this tune on the bandstand and you expect the Coltrane arrangement, you’d better come prepared with charts and a lot of explanation.

Jazz and modularity

Every jazz arrangement of a standard is an analog remix. Where do you draw the line between an arrangement, a new melody written to existing chord changes and an improvised solo? The line is blurry at best. Should we consider “Whispering” and “Groovin’ High” to be the same song? How about “I’m In The Mood For Love” and “Moody’s Mood For Love?” Or “I Got Rhythm” and the zillion bebop heads it inspired?

Jazz was largely built on a scaffolding of showtunes and other pop songs. The crucial ones known as standards have certain musical characteristics that make them more amenable to jazz adaptation: a modular structure amenable to being dissassembled and reassembled, like a good Lego kit. Jazz compositions and improvisation look to me like different combinations from a giant box of musical legos, rearrangeable at will on paper or on the bandstand.

The most jazz-friendly standards have singable melodies with rhyming lyrics accompanied by a simple chord progression (or sometimes not so simple, but always intelligible to the ordinary person’s ear.) They’re repetitive and predictable. They follow a small set of conventions in their structure: four, eight and sixteen-bar phrases, repeated two or three or four times, with the larger grouping of phrases repeating more or less intact for the entire duration of the tune. There are a lot of interchangeable modular forms: the cadence, the turnaround, the counter-clockwise trips around the circle of fifths.

Circle of fifths

As with harmony, there’s a finite toolbox of riffs, patterns and scale runs you can use to build your jazz melodies and solos. Blues is particularly heavily based on Lego-like modular riffs. Intros and endings are few, highly standardized and interchangeable. One much-recycled ending is the one Count Basie uses in his performance of “Fly Me To The Moon” with Frank Sinatra:

Another basic Lego is the Duke Ellington ending, as in “Take The A Train.”

Modules and samples

I think that the distance between a jazz module like the Duke Ellington ending and a sample like the Funky Drummer break is short. The technology changes but the underlying musical statement is the same. Writing a jazz tune based on licks and progressions from existing songs feels very much the same to me as producing a track based on samples and loops. I doubt there’s ever been much originality in the most creative music, and I see a smooth continuity from the practices of my musical forebears to the ones used by me and my contemporaries.

Even Coltrane’s “original” music draws heavily on other sources. His classic tune “Impressions” is a mashup of “So What” by Miles Davis and “Pavane” by Morton Gould. If the most creative artist in the history of jazz is sampling, I think everyone should feel emboldened to do the same.

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