From Publishers Weekly
Ratliff, the jazz critic for the New York Times
, isn't interested in simply retelling the biographical facts of John Coltrane's life. Instead, he analyzes how the saxophone player came to be regarded as the last major figure in the evolution of jazz, tracing both the evolution of his playing style and the critical reception to it. The first half of this study concentrates on Coltrane's career, from his early days as a semianonymous sideman to his final, increasingly experimental recordings, while the second half explores the growth of Coltrane's legacy after his death. Ratliff has a keen sense of Coltrane's constantly changing sound, highlighting the collaborative nature of jazz by discussing the bands he played in as both sideman and leader. (One of the more intriguing asides is a suggestion that Coltrane's alleged LSD use might have inclined him toward a more cooperative mode of performance.) The consideration of Coltrane's shifting influence on jazz—and other modern musical forms—up to the present day is equally vigorous, refusing to rely on simple adulation. Always going past the legend to focus on the real-life stories and the actual recordings, Ratliff's assessment is a model for music criticism. (Sept.)
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Sonny Rollins made an album called Saxophone Colossus, but his contemporary John Coltrane became the embodiment of that title, the last soloist to date to dominate jazz as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker had. New York Times jazz critic Ratliff gives us not another biography but rather a history of Coltrane's "sound," his personal manner of playing. Half the book traces Coltrane from beginning on the alto sax to adopting the tenor during early jobs to initial fame in Miles Davis' and Thelonious Monk's working bands and as a leader on recordings in the 1950s. The rest analyzes his last seven years leading the most successful quartet of the 1960s, for which he took up soprano sax, and more experimental ventures after disbanding it. Ratliff demonstrates that the first period was one of increasing complexity in Coltrane's solos; the second, of increasing tonal variety and extramusical (spiritual) motivation but decreasing structural underpinnings as Coltrane exploited modal scales over sparse or no Western chord changes. This is popular, nontechnical music analysis at its best. Olson, Ray