April 21, 2006

No Junk No Soul?

MP3 My Favorite Things (live) / John Coltrane [31.7 MB]

Yesterday I went to a traditional shaman ceremony in northern Seoul. We saw the 75-year-old North Korean woman who started the shaman resurgence in Korea in the 1970s. We saw a possessed shaman in drag dance on a giant knife blade. We saw a woman who'd hired shamans for a private ritual get pelted with rice and beans. And we saw voodoo-like dolls being made to scare evil spirits away from the real bodies of children.

Those were the highlights. But the one thing you don't really notice until it's gone, the one thing that truly matters, is the music. Whenever the music stops, the sacred quality of the rituals dissipates almost entirely. Without the incessant rhythms and the simple melodies, the magic just isn't there. My favorite instrument was the "taepyongso," which sounds like a stunted oboe crossed with a recorder. That is, like the alto sax in free jazz. It's riffs sound like Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler even when they're entirely harmonious.

This version of "My Favorite Things" is from Coltrane's last live recording, from one of the two shows he played in Olatunji, Africa, in 1967. There's no alto here, but the song still reminds me of the taepyongso, if only because it's as primal as can be. In "Brian the Bachelor," a season four episode of Family Guy, Brian and Brooke bond over "early Coltrane, before he got clean." Brian comments, yeah, yeah, "no junk no soul." But that is bullshit. Listen to this song and tell me Coltrane has no soul at the end of his career in '67. Sanders and Coltrane both sound as if they're punishing their own enormous spirits—trapped deep inside their instruments—until they scream cries and are freed. Only for the briefest moments does any of this maniacal 34-minute trip resemble "My Favorite Things," and the only one who needs junk to take it is the listener. This is not for the faint of heart. This is for someone with a desert or two and not much else.

John Coltrane, soprano, tenor saxophone; Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone; Alice Coltrane, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Rashied Ali, drums; Algie Dewitt, bata drum; probably Jumma Santos, percussion

Also: Check out Armrest, a music blog that thoughtfully analyzes the way specific contemporary songs borrow from their ancestors.


rsinatra said...

If I'm not mistaken, John Coltrane tripped a lot on LSD from 64 to 67.. so, he wasn't really "clean"... LSD isn't like heroine or something, but it's still a drug. So, LSD = soul? :P

Anonymous said...

Very true. There is a reason why people like Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix were able to play as they did. Really singing from the depth of their hearts through music with their instruments :)