January 16, 2010

Story of a Sound

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound"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.


  1. What would Coltrane have played next?
    With the music on the album released after his death "Interstelar Spaces" he has reached such a high level with this four upsetting themes played in an exstatc manner, that it seems to be impossible, that he would have been able to progress even more. Playing his music at this moment he found himself probably in an other world, in the space. Listening to this music one feels like flying away.
    Gerhard Hug

  2. Yes, there is the notion that Coltrane had taken his music as far as he could at the time of his death. But his untimely passing left many jazz musicians wondering where they should take the music next. In some ways, jazz is still dealing with Coltrane's legacy.