I posted this on March 3rd, 2006.
Where do I start with this one? Do I mourn the fact that I no longer purchase music the way that I once did? Or that I haven’t kept up on purchasing classic recordings? Do I sheepishly admit that I haven’t revisited this Monk/Trane collaboration in years? Do I bemoan the many typos in this relatively short post?
Or should I just dive into the life is like jazz thing? In the comments, my friend BJ mentions the work of Carl Ellis, stating that Ellis, in his book “Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African American Experience” claims African American theology is more like jazz while European theology is more like classical music. I see the point Ellis was trying to make, but a great theologian can make jazz out of anything.
One of the all-time great jazz tunes is John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things. He takes the very.. European… Rogers and Hammerstein’s tune and infuses soul and rhythm to it that I can’t imagine the original composers ever imagined. My Favorite Things is actually a wonderful example of what I tried to get to in my original post. The first version many of us heard of that tune was Julie Andrews singing it in the Sound of Music. Growing up, I heard a version sung by Diana Ross that inexplicably is featured on the Motown Christmas album. It’s not a huge deviation from the original… well…, it’s as big of a deviation as Diana Ross’ voice is from Julie Andrews’! The instrumentation is different. More big band, more swing to it. I heard Coltrane’s version in high school. It’s so long! Every instrument gets time to shine. Coltrane plays with this tune in ways that frankly just shouldn’t work. He’s dissecting the melody, investigating its innards. And as far away from the original as he seems to get, he always comes back home. When he actually comes back to the bridge (“when the dog bites…”), the tune is nearly over and you’re suddenly reminded of this epic musically journey you’ve just been on, but now the captain is announcing that you’re about to land. Ahhh… so good!
In 2004, one of favorite hip hop groups, Outkast, did a pretty ballsy thing. The duo released a double album, two different albums really, allowing each of them to take center stage for an entire cd. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is a straight-forward rap album. I don’t mean that to be reductionist. It’s really good and it holds well ten years later. Andre 3000, on the other hand, went a bit more experimental. There’s hip hop, there’s R&B, funk, and soul. And then there is sweet instrumental of… you guessed it, My Favorite Things. Clearly influenced by Coltrane, this is slimmed down, fast paced, almost breathless interpretation. It has electronic elements that make it feel like it’s been in the hands of a master hip hop producer, but it also has this driving bass and piano solo that grounds it in jazz tradition.
It probably seems like I should revisit Ellis’ thesis here now that I have discussed how three black musicians have expanded on this “white” tune. Instead, I’m coming back to Julie Andrews. What shouldn’t be lost in all of this is the fact that these other musicians were inspired by a beautiful piece of source material. The lyrics are uplifting. The tune is as bouncy and catchy as anything pop music has ever produced. I dare you to think of Julie Andrews singing this song and not smile. It’s so good! Add to that a classic cinematic set piece and you begin to see why musicians would want to revisit and reinterpret this tune over and over again. It echoes across decades in a way that only the best of our artistic culture can.
What would have happened if we would have codified the Julie Andrews version of the song? What if it would have been universally accepted that this piece, as it stood in 1965, had attained a perfection that isolated it from critique, revision, or reinterpretation. What if we would have decided that the Sound of Music was inerrant and Julie Andrews infallible? Think of what would have been lost if we would have closed to door to interpretation.
We play one tune: Love God by loving people. There are as many different interpretations of that tune as there are expressions of lived experience. As long as we come back home to that recognizable bridge that connects us from where we’ve been to where we’re going, why should we fight against any one else’s improvisation?
38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.