Jazz critics have made a living declaring that John Coltrane was the most influential saxophonist of the modern jazz era. But listen to the current crop of practicing sax players and very few of them sound like Coltrane. In fact, saxophonist go out of their way to avoid such comparisons. The veteran tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd was sorely angered when the jazz critic of The Los Angeles Times repeatedly claimed he sounded like Coltrane. Coltrane’s son, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, studiously went about avoiding comparisons to his father when he first started out.
The Coltrane influence transcends sound. His discipline, his devotion to craft, his unending search and constantly evolving individuality; these are traits every saxophonist of worth aspires to. But it’s exactly that desire to have a distinct sound—a sound instantly recognizable as their own, as Coltrane’s is instantly recognizable as his–that keeps them from imitating the jazz giant. Occasionally, saxophonists will emulate the Coltrane approach in a tribute performance, as the former McCoy Tyner sideman Azar Lawrence did last year on an excellent recording Legacy and Music Of John Coltrane (Tyner was Coltrane’s long-term pianist). Lawrence not only mimics Coltrane’s sound on the instrument, he recreates his idol’s approach to group dynamics and shared discovery. It’s at once a music of joy and fury, enlightening rather than entertaining.
Ben Ratliff states early on in his study Coltrane: The Story of a Sound that his subject is the most influential jazz musician of the modern era. Then he spends the rest of the book explaining how, tracing the evolution of his music in the book’s first half and its influences in the second. And while Ratliff seems to avoid the “most influential” claim when it comes to sound (he does list a string of names in a long paragraph that sprung from the Coltrane school, including Lawrence’s) he makes a strong case that Coltrane changed the way musicians approach the music. The result is the most important consideration of the jazz giant to date.
It’s long been thought that Coltrane was a product of his times, that he was strongly influenced by race issues and the political turmoil of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. To an extent, this was true. But Ratliff sees Coltrane’s music more as a spiritual quest than a reaction to the times. Coltrane was largely uninterested in the day-to-day trivia, as Ratliff points out in the chapter “Who’s Willie Mays?” From the beginning he was immersed in the music. He took influences from a host of unexpected sources: trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. But at some point, roughly in the 1950s when he was touring with Miles Davis, Coltrane decided he needed to do more than digest the legacy of the music. He had to extend it.
Coltrane’s long solos, sometimes based on a single chord, and the droning, polyrhythmic backdrops over which they were played, not only had spiritual roots but were emblematic of spiritual search and discovery. Ratliff shows how some embraced this approach. He quotes new music composer Steve Reich who makes favorable comparisons between Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass” to Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” both embracing “harmonic stasis” by sticking to a single chord. Allaudin (Bill) Mathieu finds Coltrane’s complexity reductionist, in a class with the old blues shouters “who after all had the same modal strategy –five notes.” Not everyone finds this simplicity enamoring. Of Coltrane’s only popular hit, “My Favorite Things,” composer-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer complains, “a nice Broadway song and then soprano for an hour? Unnh!”
Ratliff, jazz critic for The New York Times, has a good way of explaining musical form and theory for the uninitiated, even as he drops terms like lydian mode. His attempts to define sound in words—always a difficult task for the music writer—usually succeed though sometimes with opposite effect. The sound of Coltrane’s fellow tenor player and band member Pharoah Saunders is described as, “ugly challenges of squelched and shrieking sounds, and hoarse, brawny tours…” When Ratliff speaks of Coltrane’s tone as “undercooked” you’re not sure that he means “raw” or “rare.”
Jazz writers are well known to make cross-genre comparisons (think of Miles being compared to Picasso) and Ratliff makes his share, calling Coltrane at one point an “American romantic” like Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood and Walt Whitman. He quotes the poet Robert Lowell to justify Coltrane’s long solos as “monotony of the sublime” in a passage that also brings up Melville, Milton and Edmund Burke. This may seem like over-reaching but the most fantastic claim, made by guitarist Sonny Sharrock is not: “Trane had to die, man. Musically, anyway, to release everybody else.” In that sense, Coltrane was more than an influence on music. He was the savior.—Cabbage Rabbit
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff; Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, hardback, 250 pages, $24
A version of this review first appeared in the IE Weekly