March 12th 2008 10:51 am
Copyright © 2008 Lyn Horton
By Lyn Horton
Reading Ben Ratliff’s 200-page book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, is close to being on a roller-coaster ride. The subject matter of John Coltrane alone has absorbed the energy of countless students. Yet Ratliff makes an effort to enter the mystery of how Coltrane generated his music. But, the author’s consciousness takes a vacation.
First of all, for what audience is the book written? It alludes to the recordings and the specific music, which cannot be avoided, but this activity excludes readers who have better things to do than memorize every note Coltrane ever played, or even remember all of the tunes that make Coltrane memorable in the most general sense. Lewis Porter has written already a tome for academics, whose life is the study of music, and came to a more interesting and more accurate conclusion than Ratliff draws about the indivisibility of the man and his sound. So is the book for a general public? Or people who listen to NPR?
Though the text progresses like liner notes, the first part of the book is filled with many reasonable assessments of the music for which Ratliff is well-known. Chapter 7: “Live in Japan…is a record of long form stamina, closer than any other recording to what his performances had actually been like for about five years….” Ratliff goes on describing specific cuts on the album and then closes with: “He [Coltrane] is working within his own improvisation language, a big pool… wide enough to accommodate all that music.” (Yet, noticeable later on is a quote from pianist Matthew Shipp: “Once he [Coltrane] got past jazz, he was trying to delve into some subconscious pool of language.”)
And then Part 2 begins, where Ratliff sporadically, in his copious researching precision, ends up interrupting himself to insure that he carves out a space for information rendered from his litany of references, instead of simply letting the writing flow into the mist of acceptance of the music and how it remains. The author seems to have pressured himself into stretching his material beyond the limits that he needs to go into the realm of “influence.” That his potential insight falls off a cliff for the sake of offering answers that are forced and squeezed out of his research deflates the book, an example of which opens Chapter 9.
“John Coltrane tends to be understood in either one of two ways: as the one-man academy of jazz—the king student, the exhaustively precise teacher—or as the great psychic liberator of jazz who rendered the academy obsolete.
Indirectly, by example (italics mine), Coltrane encouraged musicians to practice and study rudiments and scales and harmonic theory…Even more indirectly (italics mine), he encouraged other musicians, in jazz and outside of jazz, to transcend their hang-ups and preconceptions and to play a pure intuitive expression as opposed to learned figures He helped to freak people out; he gave them extramusical ideas.
Whether or not the ideas were his prime motivation — I think they were not (italics mine) — Coltrane played all his music with such commitment that he could seem (italics mine) as if he were selling intellectual ideas outside of music.”
OKAY. Stop. Stop. Stop. If only Ratliff were to have paid attention to the way he reported Coltrane developing, and listened to the post-Coltrane musicians he interviewed and quoted early on in the book, like reed and brass player, Joe McPhee (responding to Coltrane in 1965 having seen him at the Village Gate: “I thought that I was going to die from emotion…I’d never experienced anything like that in my life.”), then Ratliff would have perhaps afforded himself the opportunity to reach the poetic and creative apotheosis not unlike the one that Coltrane did, not simply imitate the language of it. Identifying with how that place feels is essential to allowing Coltrane’s legacy to breathe. After all, Ratliff devotes a whole chapter entitled “You Must Die” to the fact that Coltrane’s music reached an “apodictic” pinnacle by the time he died. Charles Tolliver, trumpeter, is quoted: “He [Coltrane] was God.”
Coltrane’s pursuit was in forming clarity of purpose. Every step he took increased his self-awareness. And he knew it. That is the reason his music changed, without publication and self-aggrandizement. This is what Ratliff already knows and writes about. When Coltrane worked with other musicians like Davis, he took on the experience as an education that later was reflected in the direction in which he did not go. With Monk, Coltrane booted himself into a realm of creativity he had hitherto been unable to discover. When he invited other people to play with him including the members of his own “classic quartet,” it was to strengthen his own response mechanisms in order to further his own oneness with the music. The music acted as a vehicle for him to achieve enlightenment. It was through his interaction with other musicians that he enabled himself to come upon the place where there were no more notes to play. He learned no formulas, no tricks. He practiced his music, chord changes and all, incessantly. Out of that he developed a language that he could bend and twist to the moment. His “free” music just happened because he was free; he had acquired his musical muscles and could apply their power without thinking.
Ratliff writes an astute close to Chapter 10: “The idea of a last work [The Olatunji Concert] acting as a summary or a capstone is a sweet and hopeful construct. But life doesn’t add up for the living.”
And then he ends the book with the only transcribed one on one interview regarding Coltrane’s “influence” on Marcus Strickland (this seems to be an arbitrary choice of interviewees). Ratliff also calls for, shockingly, the creation of more Coltranes and the last sentence of the book is the out-of-the-blue proclamation: “The truth of jazz is in its bands.” This is the place, if there is one, where Ratliff goes flying off a precipice. What is he thinking? This is just as good a conclusion as anything else? Really…
Ratliff quotes veteran Chicago tenor player Von Freeman on page 195: “See, cats are still trying to recover from the Trane explosion. And, of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way…Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and move on.” Right. Move on, further into present time. Just do it with the only reference to Coltrane being the one that is felt and not explicitly heard.
The truth about Coltrane radiated when Coltrane put a horn in his mouth. And kept it there. He must be given his freedom and be released from earthly confusion that arises from the imposition of falsely derived cause and effect relationships between his music and its public. Let the music’s resonance penetrate us in unpredictable ways, til the end of time.
Lyn Horton is visual artist and jazz writer based in New England.