[JPL] Coltrane: The Story of a Sound': Ben Ratliff bridges the jazz divide

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Fri Dec 28 07:28:56 EST 2007

`Coltrane: The Story of a Sound': Ben Ratliff bridges the jazz divide
The Dallas Morning News
COLTRANE: THE STORY OF A SOUND Ben Ratliff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24)

Jazz can be intimidating, especially to the non-musician. Much of the
criticism is theoretical and mathematic, written in a clubby language that
tunes out those of us who can't recognize an ascending I-II-V pattern or a
B-flat minor blues. Yet even some of the most accomplished players insist
the music should be felt more than dissected, that it speaks more directly
to the soul than to the mind.

Ben Ratliff's Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" not only bridges this
heart-brain divide in a way that makes nonexperts want to keep on reading,
it also illuminates the chasm in the context of a towering figure and his
considerable shadow.

Ratliff is a jazz critic for the New York Times. He has the vocab and the
knowledge, and "Story of a Sound" has passages that will give the
uninitiated twinges of insecurity and unworthiness.

Fight through it. Ask a musician friend a few questions. Accept that you
might not get it all. What you'll find is a sharp, concise (217 pages)
cultural study that speaks to the fan as well as the artist and the wonk.

Coltrane, the tenor and soprano saxophone titan who died in 1967 at the age
of 41, has inspired enough volumes to fill the Village Vanguard. So keep in
mind that "Story of a Sound" isn't yet another biography, though it has
biographical elements.

The first half is the story of an artist's evolution, from sideman to
supreme innovator to musical holy man. The second half dives into his
all-encompassing legacy and influence.

In Ratliff's accounting, Coltrane's premature death left the jazz world in a
state of flux, where traditionalists and revolutionaries staked out
territory in discord and harmony with Coltrane's more radical advances. If
you played jazz saxophone in the post-Trane era, some part of you either
embraced or ran from Coltrane's sound. There was before Trane and there was

Ratliff stakes out the basics of that sound early on. Coltrane's music "is
marked by remarkable technique, strength in all registers of the tenor and
soprano saxophones, slightly sharp intonation, serene intensity, and a
rapid, mobile exploration of chords, not just melody." But his sound evolved
through his support of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, the groundbreaking
chord changes of "Giant Steps" and the formation of his "classic quartet"
with bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner.

We see Coltrane kick heroin, find God and praise him with the mind-blowing
suite "A Love Supreme." We go through the years shortly before his death,
marked by the large-group experimentation that alienated traditionalists and

And then things get really interesting. The final 100 pages assess
Coltrane's earth-shattering influence on jazz as Ratliff enters the fray of
what could be called the Coltrane Wars. These were waged between critics,
often white, who disdained the free-form forays and monotony of his later
period, and his defenders, often black, who insisted that such traits
transcended Western ideals of form and structure.

Take the trumpeter and educator Charles Moore's lacerating response to Don
Ellis' review of "The John Coltrane Quartet Plays Chim Chim Cheree." The
critic took Coltrane to task for "playing chorus after chorus, solo after
solo on only one idea - that of continually varying scale patterns and

To Moore this was just one more instance of cultural hegemony: "The feeling
of this music is more important to me than the technical matters; a feeling
that you, Ellis, have insulted, thereby declaring yourself as another of my
many white enemies. And for that, along with your ideals and artifacts from
ancient history, you must die."

Here is the heart-mind schism in a nutshell, couched in the black power
rhetoric that positioned Coltrane as a largely posthumous ideological symbol
of the `60s.

Like other great critics, Ratliff analyzes art within a larger cultural
framework, but without shrinking the art. Ratliff knows Coltrane, but he
also knows the poet Amiri Baraka and the critic Stanley Crouch, the novelist
Herman Melville and the philosopher Edmund Burke.

So "Story of a Sound" isn't just the story of a sound. It's a piece of jazz
criticism that passionately questions and enhances the role of jazz
criticism. It walks that line between the artiste and the dilettante. No
need to be intimidated.

(c) 2007, The Dallas Morning News. Visit The Dallas Morning News on the
World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/ Distributed by
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

© 2007 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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