[JPL] Coltrane Book Is Brilliant, Economical

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http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2007/09/28/entertainment/e1
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Coltrane Book Is Brilliant, Economical

By HENRY C. JACKSON, Associated Press Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007
(09-28) 16:14 PDT , (AP) --

"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 250 pages, $24),
by Ben Ratliff: The saxophonist John Coltrane is among the most celebrated
and mythologized musicians of his generation. But he almost never was.

As Ben Ratliff recounts in his brilliant, economical book, "Coltrane: The
Story of a Sound," the famed jazz artist nearly squandered a big break, as a
player in Miles Davis' band. Coltrane was precocious then, even the willful
Davis knew that. But he was also a drug addict, disheveled and unreliable,
and so he was soon excommunicated.

It would be an inauspicious start to a remarkable 10-year stretch, one that
Ratliff artfully recounts in crisp, judicious prose. Coltrane retreated,
briefly, finding sobriety and then a fruitful partnership with jazz pianist
Thelonious Monk. By the time he reunited with Davis, he was well on his way
to crafting an iconic, signature sound.

A longtime jazz critic for The New York Times, Ratliff has written a sharp
biography not so much of Coltrane, but of his music. As one might expect
with such a premise, there is ample grist for jazz wonks. But that is not to
say this work should be limited to music theory majors, either.

"Coltrane" is a book of two parts. The first is a detailed and compelling
look at how, more or less, Coltrane became Coltrane. Ratliff is swift but
thorough, taking the reader from Coltrane's musical beginnings, when he
played furtively with whites from a segregated Navy band, to his ascension
into musical lore.

There are precious insights here, particularly into Coltrane's habits and
what made him tick. He was, we learn, a voracious reader with disparate
influences. A man who overcame heroine addiction and one who comfortably
connected Einstein's Theory of Relativity to music in conversation.

Some of these snippets are myth-busting. Coltrane was as renowned for his
musical improvisations as any musician ever was, but Ratliff is careful to
portray this brilliance as a product of careful craftsmanship and
preparation. The author also never submits himself to idolatry, dutifully
noting periods when Coltrane's music was lackluster, linking an absence of
focus and with a drop in form.

In a second part that is no less ambitious or successful, Ratliff attempts
to parse the lingering questions of Coltrane's legacy. Here he skillfully
and convincingly places Coltrane as something of a man apart from most other
musicians ‹ a cultural comet, as much as a musical one.

Ratliff cites an argument in print between a music critic who offers a
scathing review of Coltrane and a reader who replies with an equally cutting
letter to the editor, one that more or less calls the reviewer a racist.

The nasty exchange, Ratliff writes, can be interpreted as being about far
more than the music or Coltrane himself, but rather:

"The perception that white people were making ugly, limiting references in
their understanding of black achievement, versus the perception that the
long, driving modal passages of Coltrane's group or, by extension the 102
points scored by Wilt Chamberlain in a single basketball game in 1962 were
all examples of instinctive gluttony."

Coltrane did not necessarily thrust himself forward. Yet his style made him
an obsession for years after he died, so much so that even the sharpest
critiques of his work seemed tinged with "some element of hero worship of
him as the primal masculine machine," Ratliff writes.

The author is characteristically succinct in capturing Coltrane's laid-back
approach to the chatter. "Coltrane was above all of it," he writes. "Like
all great artists, he embodied multiple, often contradictory aspects. He was
Liston and Ali."

Ratliff's assessment of the more haunting aspects of Coltrane's legacy,
including the vacuum he seemed to leave after his early death at age 40 from
liver cancer, is no less convincing.

Coltrane's death and his unique brilliance have haunted many, from the day
he died until more recent times. Ratliff takes us into the college dorm room
of Branford Marsalis, one of the finest jazz musicians of modern years, to
illustrate the point. Marsalis, he writes, nearly forsook jazz to pursue a
career as a pop music producer in part because of fears that much of jazz
had become a re-creation of Coltrane's sound.

As one might expect, Ratliff has his own theory on why so many have chased
Coltrane's ghost, and why his specter has proved so elusive. "One of the
kinks in the reception of Coltrane's music is that while it has become
synonymous with technical expertise, it has also become synonymous with
rebellion, and self-conscious rebellion is always suspect: it matters deeply
who is doing it, what they think they are rebelling against ..."

It's a fair point, but one that also leads Ratliff into a bit of a punt when
he tries to explain why we have not seen another Coltrane-like figure emerge
since his death: The only way to find the next Coltrane, he seems to say, is
to abandon the search.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2007/09/28/entertainment/e16075
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