Holy spirit of the saxophone

By JON GARELICK  |  September 12, 2007

Ratliff covers the familiar Coltrane benchmarks: the awkward Navy bebop recordings, the apprenticeships with Earl Bostic, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, the “sheets of sound” mastery of harmony and chord changes, the spiritual questing of A Love Supreme and the “middle-period” classic quartet, the stratospheric “free jazz” explorations of the last years. At the same time, The Story of a Sound is a history of post-war jazz, the post–Charlie Parker world that Coltrane and Sonny Rollins inherited, the civil-rights era, the changing face of jazz economics and how those economics affected Coltrane’s many progeny, right down to the Marsalises and the way we live now.

The two strands of Coltrane’s personality as they’ve come down to us, “the spiritual Coltrane and the technique Coltrane,” twine through Ratliff’s narrative like DNA. Here’s Coltrane, “the champion student of jazz,” master of structure and technique, pushing himself farther and farther into that technique to where “sound superseded solos and structure. . . . Eventually we can come around to the music’s overall sound: first how it feels in the ear and later how it feels in the memory, as mass and metaphor. Musical structure, for instance, can’t contain morality. But sound, somehow, can. Coltrane’s large, direct, vibratoless sound transmitted his basic desire: ‘that I’m supposed to grow to the best good that I can get to.’ ” If you can write a biography of an idea, Ratliff has written a great one.

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