Monday, October 08, 2007

Ben Ratliff - John Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (FSG Books, 2007)

Ben Ratliff is the chief jazz critic for the New York Times and his highly anticipated biography of the legendary saxophonist and composer John Coltrane is a sightly uneven mix of musical and social history. Ratliff's stated goal in this book is to not focus as much on standard biography, but to chart the evolution of Coltrane's music. It's a short work, broken into two roughly 100 page segments, the first being a just-the-facts-ma'am recounting of the evolution of his music, and then the second part the story of how the music he created has influenced others. Part one starts with Coltrane performing in a Navy band in the wake of World War II and follows the evolution of his music from sitting in with rhythm and blues bands in Philadelphia to performing in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and finally his big break, joining the Miles Davis Quintet. He touches briefly on the albums Coltrane made for the Prestige label and his apprenticeship with Thelonious Monk. Ratliff discusses Coltrane's Atlantic Records recordings in terms on the musical theories that he was using at the time, that is writing very complex and busy compositions and then contrasts that with the records he made for Impulse records, where the music was much more open and finally embracing of free jazz. Part two of the book looks at the enormous impact that Coltrane's music had on the musicians, critics and fans that followed him. Interviews with contemporaries like the Charles Tolliver and Charles Moore (particularly the quote from an incendiary letter Moore wrote in the wake of a controversial review of Coltrane by the trumpeter Don Ellis) are important in humanizing the story and keeping it from drifting into purely dry analysis. The book ends by charting Coltrane's influence amongst younger jazz players, who are a generation or two removed from direct influence. An interview with the saxophonist Marcus Strickland is particularly revealing, showing how Coltrane's music is viewed in today's jazz environment. Ratliff is pretty successful in fulfilling his stated goal in charting the evolution of Coltrane's sound and the influence it had on those who followed him. He does break away from purely musical discussion at some points to mention Coltrane's drug use and Civil Rights issues. It's not the Coltrane biography to start with, as it requires a familiarity with his music and his basic story. Musicians may get the most out of Ratliff's musical analysis, but even the non-musician listener will find some of the quotes and interviews of interest.

Send comments to: Tim