"I start from one point and go as far as possible," wrote John Coltrane in 1961. "But, unfortunately, I never lose my way. I say unfortunately, because what would interest me greatly is to discover paths that I'm perhaps not aware of." This is the essence of the musician who emerges in Ben Ratliff's excellent book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. As the subtitle suggests, the book is only partially a biography. Mainly, it traces the sources and progression of Coltrane's music, from the early rough and fast chord changes, through the "sheets of sound" phase, and finally to the modal and experimental "spiritual" phase of his last few years. The book also considers his influence on jazz after his death, at age 40, from liver cancer in 1967. He experimented and innovated with music until the very end, and he haunts all jazz since then with the unanswered question - What would Coltrane have played next?
Coltrane's story was not one of meteoric rise and fall. Many jazz musicians seemed to appear on the scene fully formed with a breakout performance in a nightclub or on vinyl - the years of struggle to get there lost in obscurity. But audiences got to see and hear Coltrane's struggles and growth, and this is perhaps an underappreciated reason why many listeners are so attached to him. That and the fact that he absorbed and transformed just about everything there was to know about the saxophone.