Friday, November 23, 2007

John Coltrane: the story of a sound

My review of Ben Ratliff's new book
Coltrane: the story of a sound has been
posted on Monsters & Critics.


(Update: Here's the body of the review, reprinted here just for the heck of it.)

In the growing catalog of books on John Coltrane’s life and musical legacy, there tend to be three main species: 1. anecdotal oral-histories, along the lines of J.C. Thomas’ Chasin’ the Trane (1975); 2. fan-written, passionate, even spiritual books, including those that view Coltrane as a spiritual seeker primarily; and 3. cooler, more analytical books, along the lines of traditional academic music histories. Ben Ratliff’s new book on John Coltrane’s legacy falls into this third camp.

The overall tone of this book is cool and detached, yet easily readable. Most of the time this works well, although once or twice I wished Ratliff had tried less hard to be coolly objective. This is the sort of book only an enthusiast would write, so there were moments I wished for more enthusiasm revealed in the writing. Thus, those moments when I felt I was hearing Ratliff’s own voice expressing a strong opinion, the book seemed to come alive, and be more compelling.

Of all the existing Coltrane studies, this book has been claimed (probably more by the publisher than anyone else) to be the first to examine Coltrane’s contribution to jazz from the viewpoint of the development of his unique signature sound on his principal instruments, tenor and soprano saxophone. This isn’t a strictly accurate claim. There have been other studies that approach Coltrane from this angle, notably John Fraim’s Spirit Catcher: The life and art of John Coltrane (1996). I believe Ratliff is attempting to be intellectually rigorous, however; there is more than enough music theory in this book, short of actual transcriptions, to satisfy most jazz theory-heads. The musical analyses are detailed, and I find myself agreeing with Ratliff’s insights most of the time.

The single most important new contribution this book makes lies in its part two, in which Ratliff discusses the ongoing impact of Coltrane’s musical ideas on jazz, and on popular music in general. Coltrane’s influences on rock ‘n roll, and on avant-garde new-music composers, for example, are addressed as well as his influences on contemporary jazz. Musicians will continue to need to come to grips with Coltrane’s influence for a long time to come. Like John Cage’s musical innovations, John Coltrane’s musical ideas are ones every musician (jazz or otherwise) must deal with, sooner or later, whether or not one ultimately agrees with the questions they asked, or likes the musical answers that resulted.

Ratliff correctly points out, in his concluding summation, that Coltrane was the right man at the right time to bring the new musical ideas into the spotlight. Coltrane was the point man in music history during the last ten years of his life. That he was also a gifted and adventurous musician, in any context, only amplifies the power he had of being the right man at the right moment.

As part of his summation, Ratliff also speaks to the backlash against free jazz that has happened since its moment in the spotlight. Ratliff’s accurate summation of the aims and failings of the neo-conservative “young lions” in contemporary jazz, led by Wynton Marsalis and his followers, is a masterpiece of critical understatement. Not a dismissal, but devastatingly clear about where the holes lie in their counter-revolutionary arguments.

Ratliff’s new book is overall a very good read, but there are a few inexplicable oversights. Most of the best-known Coltrane biographies and musical studies are listed in the “Sources and Acknowledgments” section at the back of the book. One or two are conspicuously absent. For example, it seems odd to have included Ashley Kahn’s Kind of Blue: The making of the Miles Davis masterpiece (2000), a book only peripherally about Coltrane and mostly about Davis, and to have not cited Fraim (mentioned above). Granted, Fraim’s book falls more into the fan/spiritual category I listed above, but it is a well-written book with some insights into Coltrane’s sound that are very similar to Ratliff’s own.

Ratliff does address Coltrane’s world-wide, universal influence in part two, although he mostly focuses on American jazz and American popular music. Yet he also overlooks some children of Coltrane’s sound that seem important, to me, to have been mentioned, including musicians who took Coltrane’s ideas and ran with them, not all of whom played saxophone: for example, Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock, both important free jazz guitarists. (To be fair, Ratliff quotes Sharrock at length on what happened to jazz in the aftermath of Coltrane’s death; I admit my opinion is probably biased, because I feel that Sharrock never got enough credit for his contributions to free jazz as a whole.) European free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann is mentioned, but the equally important Evan Parker is not. Nowhere is Jan Garbarek mentioned, the great Norwegian saxophonist whose soul-searing tone, especially on soprano sax, is to my ears one of the most direct descendents of Coltrane’s sound and sensibility. But these are all relatively minor caveats.

Perhaps Ratliff’s oversights can be explained by an attempt on the author’s part to distance himself from the sillier fan-based Coltrane books. It could also be the New York-centrism common to many music critics who still have difficulty accepting the reality that genuine musical life and music criticism does go on, west of the Hudson River. New York-centrism also possibly expresses itself as overlooking the important European free jazz innovators, all of whom owe a direct debt to Coltrane, as mentioned above.

So, I’ll give this new book on Coltrane a mildly qualified rave. Some of what Ratliff presents has been said before, although his approach is mostly new. Coltrane: The story of a sound is a genuine contribution to Coltrane studies, and worth reading more than once. It is a book dense with information, and you will get more out of it each time you re-read.

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