Ariana Grande has had a pretty rough 2019, huh? And it’s all thanks to “7 Rings,” a song she’s gotten a pretty sour critical reception over for a host of reasons. Some of them are related to the song itself: its “retail therapy” consumerism is empty; it’s maybe a Princess Nokia ripoff; it’s trying too hard to meme itself. And some of it’s connected to wider issues of both appropriation and oblivious haplessness; remember to always double-check with a translator if you’re going to tattoo a language you don’t know on a part of your body that you’ll be constantly showing off, especially if you’re aware of the problem and are trying to fix it. But worst of all is her attempt to interpolate “My Favorite Things” into the “7 Rings” melody, a move so thoroughly basic it feels like a first draft.
But here’s the catch: “My Favorite Things” really is a fun song to hear someone play around with, just as long as it’s not pop-hit obvious. And ever since Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music came to Broadway 60 years ago, one thing’s become pretty clear: if you want to hear “My Favorite Things” reinterpreted in a way that sounds more like a religious experience than a rich pop star’s shopping list, you’re better off looking up jazz artists. And this 24 year long cross-section of the best jazz interpretations runs a remarkably wide range — one in which a literal saint of the genre is just the beginning.
John Coltrane (1960)
It was just a year after The Sound Of Music debuted on Broadway — the week of October 21, 1960 — that one of the most singular transformations of a show tune was committed to recording. And while there have been quicker turnaround times for drastic reinterpretations (Bob Dylan had less than a year to claim sole mastery of “All Along The Watchtower” before Hendrix turned it inside out) it’s still staggering to think of what John Coltrane and his quartet did with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s work from a purely instrumental standpoint when it came to molding a familiar melody into surprising new perspectives. Coltrane’s key-of-E waltz-time performance — his first on soprano sax, inspired by Miles Davis buying one for him — was a popular breakthrough, one of those up-front examples of what jazz can actually do to transform the very structure of a familiar song. And the way his soloing toys with the melody goes from playful to profound in an instant, each reiteration of that melody recursively finding new emphases and modes each time around. The stretch where pianist McCoy Tyner really gets to take off in the middle is its own wonder, too, even if you can tell he’s a force of nature from the word go just by the opening chords. (Just ask the Juggaknots.)
Sarah Vaughan (1961)
The next really remarkable version of “My Favorite Things” was recorded in July ’61, four months after Coltrane’s album was released. This fits right on the other end of the scale, both in intent — vocal jazz bringing the words back into the forefront — and in scale, as there’s no Elvin Jones percussive momentum in a trio completed by sparse, light-touch guitar and double bass. It’s short, it’s quiet, it’s as long-past-twilit as you’d expect a performance on an album called After Hours should be. It’s also Sarah Vaughan, still at the long-lasting absolute height of her expressive powers, so the way she lingers on the vocals — floats through them, really — lets her wring out every last ounce of range from her voice. Listen to the way she goes from deeply resonant to high-pitched just in the delivery of the line “These are a few of my favorite things” — it’s like watching a brick of ice melt in three seconds, only instead of water you’re left with feathers.
Betty Carter (1964)
And then there’s this. That runtime isn’t an error: this version of “My Favorite Things” by Betty Carter, one of the most wild-out, innovative, complex jazz singers working from the early ’60s through her passing in 1998, is shorter than a lot of Ramones songs. More energetic, too. She’s singing this like the message is “you know this song inside and out, so let me give you the super-condensed version” and then proceeds to give each and every syllable its own brightly shining yet briefly flickering neon sign of a note. And yet none of them are afterthoughts — just the way they swoop and dive from one register to the next makes the sheer velocity of it all so remarkable, with each carefully spaced stretch of a note defying traditional timing to make those runs even more spectacular. The real knockout here is that it’s all a race to the end, the finish line being the way she turns that last “feel” (as in “I simply remember my favorite things/ And then I don’t feel so bad”) into a 15-second exegesis on how long a voice can sustain a note while still adding new levels to it.
Al Jarreau (1965)
After all that, why not decompress with a vocal-jazz version that’s just a straight-up virtuoso performance by a great young singer using his undeniable chops to work his way through a faithful yet expressive rendition of … huh. OK, that’s all true and everything, but what’s the story behind this, anyways? Jarreau didn’t even hit it big until the late ’70s, and he became a massive R&B/pop crossover artist before it really set in what he could do in a more trad-jazz sense, so where’d this album come from? Well, it turns out that while he was getting his master’s in vocational rehabilitation at Iowa State, Jarreau recorded a session with a piano/bass/drums combo called the Joe Abodeely Trio at the behest of a couple Moline, Illinois nightclub owners. Then the tapes were sat on for 17 years, at which point a Los Angeles label called Bainbridge Records — having acquired the rights in 1968 — realized, “Hey, Jarreau has All the Grammys, why don’t we put this out on the market.” Jarreau attempted to block the release, claiming it was a “demo tape of inferior quality,” but that’s clearly not the case whether he’s referring to the recording fidelity or his own performance, which is still in development but still in fine form.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1965)
Sometimes you don’t need complicated or transcendent or revolutionary. Sometimes you just need oomph. After years of putting out albums that challenged and intrigued listeners with uncommon time signatures, the Dave Brubeck Quartet could be excused if they laid back just a bit and worked through a few Richard Rodgers pieces. My Favorite Things was the leadoff cut and title track of an album recorded across a few sessions from both 1962 and 1965, though given the album’s stylistic unity you’d need a more detailed set of liner notes than the ones Teo Macero supplied on the original LP to pinpoint which came from when. (Thanks, JazzDisco.) There’s nothing particularly spectacular about the Quartet’s rendition of “My Favorite Things”; if I organized these columns like a playlist, starting simple and escalating into wilder territory from there, this’d be the leadoff cut. But the interplay of Brubeck’s piano with the rhythm section — especially Gene Wright’s counterpoints/counterparts on the double bass — lets Dave wander off into a few fun, giddy tangents.
Alice Coltrane (1971)
The problem with doing an instrumental jazz cover of “My Favorite Things” is that eventually some dude will sniff, “Well, it’s no Coltrane.” So: problem solved. Jokes aside, Alice Coltrane’s music has always been at least somewhat entwined with her husband’s, whether it was her role in his band — that’s her playing piano on the May ’66 recording Live At The Village Vanguard Again!, complete with its own radical free jazz exploration of “My Favorite Things” — or her musical ideas, which she considered an extension of the visions and inspirations they shared in the last few years of his life. But she’s also her own artist, and while it’s fascinating to wonder sometimes what the Coltranes could have done together if John had lived into the ’70s, the legacy of music Alice left us acknowledges his influence in tribute while still exploring her own instruments and philosophies.
By the turn of the ’70s, her bebop and free jazz influence had been deeply steeped in Eastern modes — both the religion and the music of Asia and Egypt — and World Galaxy used that characteristic mode to explore not just her own work but two of her husband’s most iconic performances. A spectacular spiritual jazz-funk take on “A Love Supreme” closes the album, and it’s a full exploration of her spirituality through both music and words, the latter delivered by the swami Satchidananda who guided her devotional spirit back to its full strength after John’s death left her bereft. But “My Favorite Things” is picked for the opener, and it’s every bit as staggering even transformed into an intensely dramatic orchestral, Eastern-influenced work of post-psychedelic exploration led by the trills of an oddly tuned, beautifully dissonant organ. It’s as dramatic a shift from John’s version to Alice’s as it was from Broadway to John.
Sun Ra Quartet (1978)
Here’s where you’d probably expect things to go from spiritual to unfathomably cosmic, and I don’t blame you: Sun Ra at his avant-garde best is the kind of artist who makes the irreverent sound holy and the noisy sound orderly, hectic clamor that eventually reveals itself to flow as naturally as conversation. But this “My Favorite Things” isn’t avant-garde, not entirely: by 1978 the Arkestra was capable of delivering everything from deep-space freakouts to elaborations on electric Miles-style jazz/funk/rock to, well, this. Recorded during winter ’77-’78 stint in Italy, the Quartet’s take on “My Favorite Things” is surprisingly straightforward post-bop, not too far afield from Coltrane’s; sax player John Gilmore, who recorded almost exclusively with Sun Ra from the early ’50s until Sun Ra’s death in 1993, delivers the kind of untethered but modally direct kind of flight that Coltrane himself would learn from a couple decades prior. Michael Ray’s solo on trumpet is as much of a jolt, too, but when it leads into Sun Ra himself working out a piano solo of his own, it’s a strong reminder of how his melodic sense didn’t always need to bend space, time, and harmony to snatch breaths.
Dorothy Ashby (1984)
The story of Dorothy Ashby lies somewhere between the what-if of tragically unmet potential and the triumph of an accomplished iconoclast: she died relatively young at 53 with a solo career that was more or less over before she turned 40, and spent much of her career having to convert skeptics who didn’t hear a place for the harp in jazz music, much less one played by a woman. But she still put out more than ten albums as a bandleader, many of which are must-haves for jazz heads and hip-hop crate diggers alike. And even after she quit touring and transitioned into a career as a session musician, she found herself contributing to excellent albums by Bill Withers (+Justments), Bobbi Humphrey (Fancy Dancer), and Minnie Riperton (Adventures In Paradise) before reaching her biggest audience yet with an appearance playing harp on Stevie Wonder’s SongsIn The Key Of Life deep cut “If It’s Magic.” But while she always sounded great as part of an ensemble — whether on harp or koto, as she did on the fantastic The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (“The Moving Finger” = daaaaamn) — hearing her unaccompanied, as she is on her final solo recording Django / Misty, is to hear the harp played with the meditative but lively harmonic malleability of Thelonious Monk at the piano.