John Coltrane (Ratcliff Book Review)

"Here's how I play," John Coltrane told a French jazz critic in 1961. "I start from one point and go as far as possible. But, unfortunately, I never lose my way. I say unfortunately, because what would interest me greatly is to discover paths that I'm perhaps not aware of.

Coltrane, John (Ratcliff Book Review)

"Here's how I play," John Coltrane told a French jazz critic in 1961. "I start from one point and go as far as possible. But, unfortunately, I never lose my way. I say unfortunately, because what would interest me greatly is to discover paths that I'm perhaps not aware of."

Well, there it is, the mystery solved. In a few lines, the greatest JAZZ saxophonist after Charlie Parker foreshadows the rest of his career and goes a considerable distance toward explaining it, right up to his death from cancer in 1967 at the age of 40. Coltrane's is the life that most fascinates today's jazz musicians, his sound - bright, hard-edged, obsessively searching - the one young saxophonists are likeliest to emulate. When the North Carolina native became prominent in the mid-1950s he was a not particularly distinctive disciple of Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. When he died he was a mystic, the ringleader of near-anarchic bandstand melees without fixed rules or personnel.

Coltrane was notoriously reluctant to discuss what he was doing in specific terms, which makes him an ideal candidate for mystification: whatever you thought he was up to, you could make a case for it on his behalf. An unfailingly polite man, he would never contradict.

"He has been more widely imitated in jazz over the last 50 years than any other figure," New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff writes in a bold new book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. By the palsied standards of jazz criticism, which too rarely rises above the level of fan-club newsletters, Ratliff has written an unusually clear-eyed book. He begins by positing the ubiquity of Coltrane's influence as a problem. Coltrane "was so unreasonably exceptional that when he became seen as the representative jazz musician, the general comprehension of how and why jazz works became changed; it also became jagged and dangerous with half-truths. Every half-truth needs a full explanation."

The rest of Ratliff's book is devoted to clearing away those cobwebs. It's a disorganized trip at times, and Ratliff is not a mesmerizing wordsmith, but he has the advantage of youth and emotional distance. Born in the mid-1960s, he didn't grow up under the weight of the baby boomers' fascination with Coltrane and the tumultuous events - the civil rights movement, the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the Vietnam War - that Coltrane admirers have been so eager to hitch to the great man's saxophone. There is on nearly every page a long overdue willingness to call things as a reasonable listener would hear them.

Tenor Madness, the only recording that pairs Coltrane with his peer and contemporary Sonny Rollins, "isn't a particularly special recording," Ratliff writes. Countdown, a fiercely complex harmonic étude from 1959, is "the next thing to geekdom." Ascension, the astonishing 1965 breakthrough album in which 11 musicians improvise ferociously without regard to scale or structure, "is not a success in particular."

But Ratliff isn't just trying to bring Coltrane down. Ascension is, instead, "a success in general, a paradigm. First of all, it had to happen." If music is moving away from strict structures, as Coltrane's obviously had been since 1959, "sooner or later you are going to have to let the opposite of form run rampant."

Ascension opens the door to so-called Late Coltrane, the last two years of his life, when strangers of dubious competence kept showing up on his bandstand; pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, his colleagues in the era's finest band, fled the group in dismay; and crowds started fleeing for the exit doors. Coltrane's late music was frantic and it split musicians into warring camps. Ratliff reprints a letter from one trumpeter of the day to another, declaring that for the sin of criticizing Coltrane, the offending musician "must die."

But in the context of Coltrane's journey away from obsession with detail, his attempts to get lost and discover new paths, his last years make sense. The barely competent sidemen were part of the quest: if you are cursed with a flawless sense of direction, the best way to get lost is to hire a blind guide.

In Ratliff's eyes, Coltrane's last years represent neither a consummation nor a disaster, merely part of one man's investigation into his craft. The book closes with a plea for more opportunities for today's musicians to make their own journey instead of mimicking Coltrane's - in other words, for more healthy jazz clubs. It is the book's only descent into wishful thinking, but it is such a lovely thought it's easy to forgive Ratliff.

Maclean's January 28, 2008