Most helpful positive review
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An Excellent Study of an Exceptional (But Often Misunderstood) Musical Innovator
on September 25, 2013
Feeling great music deeply and thinking deeply about great music shouldn't be mutually exclusive. It's a shame that the corporate and religious right takeover of our culture has led so many people (such as Mr. Hatfield) to only appreciate the hyperbole and overstatement of journalistic writing, and made them fundamentally suspicious of critical thinking and academic writing. This book may omit some details of Alice Coltrane's career, but it does an excellent job of giving context to her unique and hybrid creativity and the author deserves praise for her careful, appreciative work.
If another book comes along on Alice Coltrane that fills in these omissions, it will have to take Franya Berkman's sophisticated musical and cultural analysis as a point of departure. "Eight crayon box" - are you kidding me? Berkman has viewed Alice Coltrane through the complex prisms of race, gender, jazz style, spirituality, globalization and cultural studies, just to cite a few of the lenses she uses here. If people like Mr. Hatfield are unwilling or unable to grapple with these complex issues, they should simply admit that instead of placing the blame on the author. What is beyond doubt is that all of these issues were crucial shapers of Alice Coltrane's art.
Furthermore, Berkman made a deliberate point of departing from the discographical emphasis of so many jazz biographies - an emphasis that only appeals to jazz record collectors and typically only to men - in order to tease out the complicated themes that are fundamental to understanding Alice Coltrane's creativity in the big picture. This is a victory and a major contribution in itself.
Regarding Mr. Lankester's review: I get tired of reading so many reviews by British readers who criticize books for their supposed "lack of humor." Since when did "humor" become an expected component of academic writing about music (or ANY writing about music)? I think the problem here is that the British musical establishment has been so ridiculously conservative (i.e. devoted almost exclusively to the study of classical music) that writing about any other type of music (popular, jazz, world music, experimental music) has been forced into the sphere of journalism, where writers are expected to "entertain" their readers in order to sell the product that their magazines advertise. I'm not advocating for dry, boring academic prose, but I think we need to make a distinction between entertainment and serious scholarship. Why spend your hard-earned cash on a full-length book if you only want the level of discussion associated with Mojo or New Musical Express?
Fundamentally, the problem with the reception of this book has nothing to do with the author's inclusions or omissions. The criticisms on this site actually mirror the complexities inherent in Alice Coltrane's art: those drawn to her music for its spiritual content resist reading a more theoretical analysis of her music. And the jazz collectors really need to take their heads out of their record stacks once in a while and be open to an understanding of the music and musicians that is bigger than personnel listings, matrix numbers and alternate takes. This book does an excellent job of clarifying the misunderstandings that have dogged Alice Coltrane's exceptional career for decades and highlighting what is so important about her contribution to jazz.