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Coltrane: The Story of a Soundby Ben Ratliff
Synopses & Reviews
A major work about the great saxophonist — and about the state of jazz.
What was the essence of John Coltrane's achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz that left so many musicians and listeners so powerfully drawn to him? What would a John Coltrane look like now — or are we looking for the wrong signs? The acclaimed jazz writer Ben Ratliff addresses these questions in Coltrane. First Ratliff tells the story of Coltrane's development, from his first recordings as a no-name navy bandsman to his last recordings as a near-saint, paying special attention to the last ten years of his life, which contained a remarkable series of breakthroughs in a nearly religious search for deeper expression.
In the book's second half, Ratliff traces another history: that of Coltrane's influence and legacy. This story begins in the mid-'50s and considers the reactions of musicians, critics, and others who paid attention, asking: Why does Coltrane signify so heavily in the basic identity of jazz?
Placing jazz among other art forms and American social history, and placing Coltrane not just among jazz musicians but among the greatest American artists, Ratliff tries to look for the sources of power in Coltrane's music — not just in matters of technique, composition, and musical concepts, but in the deeper frequencies of Coltrane's sound.
"'Ratliff, the jazz critic for the New York Times, isn't interested in simply retelling the biographical facts of John Coltrane's life. Instead, he analyzes how the saxophone player came to be regarded as 'the last major figure in the evolution of jazz,' tracing both the evolution of his playing style and the critical reception to it. The first half of this study concentrates on Coltrane's career, from his early days as a semianonymous sideman to his final, increasingly experimental recordings, while the second half explores the growth of Coltrane's legacy after his death. Ratliff has a keen sense of Coltrane's constantly changing sound, highlighting the collaborative nature of jazz by discussing the bands he played in as both sideman and leader. (One of the more intriguing asides is a suggestion that Coltrane's alleged LSD use might have inclined him toward a more cooperative mode of performance.) The consideration of Coltrane's shifting influence on jazz — and other modern musical forms — up to the present day is equally vigorous, refusing to rely on simple adulation. Always going past the legend to focus on the real-life stories and the actual recordings, Ratliff's assessment is a model for music criticism. (Sept.)' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"No jazz musician ever worked harder to master his craft than John Coltrane. When appearing in nightclubs, he retreated to his dressing room to practice between sets. He played his saxophone until his lips bled, then studied philosophy, international music and the finer points of music theory to develop a fuller understanding of his art. So why did such an intellectual musician exert such a strong... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) influence on, of all people, Iggy Pop, the shirtless, leather-lunged screamer whose proto-punk group, the Stooges, Ben Ratliff rightly describes as 'the wildest, loudest, even dumbest band going'? That's part of the mystery that Ratliff, the erudite jazz critic of the New York Times, tries to unravel in his critical study of Coltrane's powerful, endlessly influential music. 'Coltrane: The Story of a Sound' is not a biography but an extended, deeply informed analysis of the qualities that make Coltrane and his music so meaningful to people today, four decades after his death. Coltrane was only 40 when he died of cancer in 1967, but during the final 10 years of his life, he became the last great innovator in jazz. After him, the music has devolved into two opposing factions: antiquarian classicism and a squawking babel of noise. In some ways, both camps can trace their inspiration to Coltrane. 'Like all great artists, he embodied multiple, often contradictory, aspects,' Ratliff writes, hinting at a comparison to Walt Whitman that he elsewhere makes explicit. By this somewhat strained formulation, the multitudes that Coltrane contains reach far beyond music and include — besides Iggy Pop, of course — such well-known jazz artists as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Lou Gehrig and John Henry (the steel-driving man, not the owner of the Boston Red Sox). Ratliff claims to see in these disparate figures a confident but stoical American archetype that Coltrane embodied: someone 'who found ecstasy in his labor but otherwise was difficult to excite.' Coltrane showed little emotion onstage, beyond the swirling, hurricane-force 'sheets of sound' that became his signature style. Ultimately, his playing reached an incantatory, trancelike state, with fervid solos that roared on for 45 minutes without pause, sending his more dedicated listeners into a delirious frenzy. It was this side of Coltrane, more than his masterly musical technique, that broadened his reputation beyond jazz. 'He helped people freak out,' as Ratliff pointedly, if inelegantly, puts it. What Iggy Pop, the punk band the Minutemen and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters so admired about Coltrane, it's safe to say, wasn't his inventive chord substitutions or his nuanced use of the Aeolian musical mode. It was the flurry of sound, the sheer, inexhaustible force of his presence and will. 'What I heard John Coltrane do with his horn,' Pop said, 'I tried to do physically.' Coltrane's intensity came to be seen by many as an unfettered expression of the African American soul. His tune 'Alabama' was written in response to the bombings and strife of the civil rights movement and represented what Ratliff calls 'an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.' Some listeners attached religious significance to Coltrane and his music, making him 'a kind of martyr... a kind of seer,' as if he were shaking the walls of Jericho and breaking the shackles of bondage with the sound of his horn. But other onetime admirers began to complain that his music had grown opaque and self-indulgent, as Coltrane came to view his performances as sensory experiences that transcended mere music. In trying to explain what made Coltrane so remarkable, Ratliff puffs his cheeks and blows as hard as he can. He pulls names at random off the cultural shelf, from Herman Melville and Susan Sontag to Gertrude Stein, Clint Eastwood, Waylon Jennings, Immanuel Kant and Wilt Chamberlain (who once scored 100 points in a basketball game, not 102, as Ratliff writes). And it's all too much. This may be the most original book on jazz since Geoff Dyer's 'But Beautiful' in 1996, but like Dyer's half-fictional tour de force, 'Coltrane' can be a maddening thing to grasp. Ratliff can be exhilarating in one passage, baffling in the next — which, come to think of it, is not unlike Coltrane himself. In the end, I wish Ratliff had paid closer attention to Coltrane's ballads, which he played with a poignant delicacy that only Stan Getz came close to matching. A whisper, after all, is more interesting than a shout and reveals more of the human heart." Reviewed by Matt Schudel, a Washington Post staff writer who often writes about jazz, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This is popular, nontechnical music analysis at its best." Booklist
"Ratliff patiently explicates Coltrane's legend, writing in short, aphoristic bursts, often as elliptically as his subject played tenor saxophone, but never less than lucidly." New York Times
A major work about the great saxophonist—and about the state of jazz.
What was the essence of John Coltranes achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz that left so many musicians and listeners so powerfully drawn to him? What would a John Coltrane look like now—or are we looking for the wrong signs?The acclaimed jazz writer Ben Ratliff addresses these questions in Coltrane. First Ratliff tells the story of Coltranes development, from his first recordings as a no-name navy bandsman to his last recordings as a near-saint, paying special attention to the last ten years of his life, which contained a remarkable series of breakthroughs in a nearly religious search for deeper expression. In the books second half, Ratliff traces another history: that of Coltranes influence and legacy. This story begins in the mid-50s and considers the reactions of musicians, critics, and others who paid attention, asking: Why does Coltrane signify so heavily in the basic identity of jazz?Placing jazz among other art forms and American social history, and placing Coltrane not just among jazz musicians but among the greatest American artists, Ratliff tries to look for the sources of power in Coltranes music—not just in matters of technique, composition, and musical concepts, but in the deeper frequencies of Coltranes sound.
John Coltrane left an indelible mark on the world, but what was the essence of his achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What were the factors that helped Coltrane become who he was? And what would a John Coltrane look like now--or are we looking for the wrong signs?
In this deftly written, riveting study, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff answers these questions and examines the life of Coltrane, the acclaimed band leader and deeply spiritual man who changed the face of jazz music. Ratliff places jazz among other art forms and within the turbulence of American social history, and he places Coltrane not just among jazz musicians but among the greatest American artists.
About the Author
Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and their two sons. His New York Times Essential Library: Jazz was published in 2002.
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