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Coltrane: The Story of a Sound Hardcover – September 18, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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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From Booklist

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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (September 18, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374126062
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374126063
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #330,073 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Herbert L Calhoun on October 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Here the music of John Coltrane, arguably one of America's most important 20th Century Artists, has been laid bare on the musical autopsy table by a seasoned and confident art and Jazz critique, Ben Ratliff.

To those of us from the 1960s, whose intellect and artistic sensibilities were being constantly challenged -- even assaulted -- by a need to understand Coltrane's music, this is a welcomed contribution to the history of Jazz and to a better understanding of the music theory behind post-modern Jazz music and its familiar compositions. Using a dialect that fuses the vernacular of bebop with his own rich self-invented language of the art critic, Ratliff wields a deft scalpel in this his own self-styled musical autopsy room.

In part one of this two-part dissection laboratory, Raliff examines Coltrane's music using dense, sometimes even layered and often deeply intellectual language and analysis borrowed from music theory, excerpted from the tapes of live Jazz presentations, and from the "head sessions' of many famous Jazz musician's practice sessions. He does so with great erudition but without over-hyping or being pretentious, boring or pedantic.

Ratliff situates Coltrane's development as a musician and as a person in the context of a politically and socially hectic, but artistically rich and fertile, time. For instance:

He points out that Bebop was a new language of blues-based modernism, developed in NY in the early 40s by Charley Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and associated with fast tempos, asymmetrical melodic lines, and chord harmonies inspired by Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartok.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By L. Columbus on August 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I'm torn about my star rating for this review. The book is very well written and probably not intended for someone like me. I'm not a musician, nor an intellectual and I felt at times like I was in over my head when reading this book. Mr. Ratliff attempts to delve into what John Coltrane was trying to achieve through his music. I'm sure he researched extensively and there are several interview excerpts peppered throughout, but in the end, it all feels a bit like a science experiment. While I enjoyed parts, overall I don't feel I took much away from the experience. Again, this is not a knock on Mr. Ratliff's talents, he's obviously a gifted writer and someone with a musical background would very likely come away with a different experience. If you are looking for a Coltrane biography however, look elsewhere. This one's more about the music, than the man.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on January 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
It's hard not to be amazed by John Coltrane's music, even for interested fans who are not expert musicians themselves (that applies to your current reviewer). Here Ben Ratliff digs deep into the substance of Coltrane's creative process - and most of all that elusive entity known as SOUND. Trying to do this in writing is an immediately incongruous prospect, though Ratliff does pretty well with prose that is full of precise musical adjectives and technical terminology that is reasonably easy for the non-expert reader to follow, all things considered. Though just watch out for the frequently congested prose that becomes necessary for Ratliff to transmit the sheer complexity of the music, such as "the meditative and semierotic aesthetic of endurance, of repetition, of ecstatic religion..." Here we can see how technical jazz really is as a genre, with Coltrane perhaps amongst the most knowledge-intensive. Another revelation here is evidence of Coltrane's lifelong search for musical perfection, as he passionately studied various instruments and genres, and even literature and languages, in a quest for the perfect sound. However, there is an underlying irony to Ratliff's entire endeavor, in that there is no proof that Coltrane (or any jazz musician of his caliber) saw the musical process in the same way as critics and writers, no matter how knowledgeable they are. One must wonder if such passionate technical analysis truly makes one appreciate the music, or if a less obsessive attitude is necessary to really feel the sound. What kind of love did Coltrane seek? [~doomsdayer520~]
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By B. Calvert on November 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Ratliff does an extrodinary job on what had to be a difficult subject. He has a way with words like very few authors I've read in a long,long time. Not only is his vocabulary boundless but the way he uses his word knowledge is beyond about anything one finds today. He must be the finest Jazz writer in the USA.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. I. Uitto on April 15, 2012
Format: Paperback
This was an absolutely fabulous book. Mind you, it's not a biography of John Coltrane and was never meant to be - read the subtitle: "The Story of A Sound." Ratliff provides a fascinating and detailed story about how this sound that would be more influential than any other in this music that has come to be broadly defined as `jazz' evolved. Having listened to Coltrane for some four decades and knowing most of his records in and out, this book provided me with so many insights into the music and the man that I had to go back and listen to many of the records with the book in hand. What is so refreshing about this book is Ratliff's sober analysis, which recognizes the enormous talent and inner drive of Coltrane without placing him on a pedestal as a saint. In fact, Ratliff demonstrates quite clearly how the mythology about Coltrane, especially after his death, took a life of its own and became a straightjacket for a generation of musicians (especially saxophonists) that came after.

The first part of the book follows Coltrane's growth and the development of his music - or sound - from the earliest surviving recordings from his army times after the World War II. Coltrane was a late bloomer and only found his own musical and spiritual self much later. Miles Davis in whose band Trane played during two stretches of time was clearly a mentor with a critical influence on the man's development. Having kicked an early heroin habit in 1957, Coltrane embarked on a search that lacks parallels in the history of jazz. Having exhausted the harmonic possibilities embedded in traditional chord progressions culminating in the systematic study that was presented as `Giant Steps,' Coltrane moved onto entirely new spheres based on modal music (an area where Miles' influence is evident).
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