A New York Times critic examines the jazz saxophonist’s style and legacy.
What hath Trane wrought? That’s the double-barreled question posed by Ratliff (The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz, 2002), one of the most thoughtful and reliable of daily newspaper critics. The work of John Coltrane, who enjoyed widespread influence both during his ’60s primacy and long after his death from liver cancer in 1967, is considered in two discreet parts. The first charts the autodidactic evolution of Coltrane’s music, from early journeyman performances through tenures in the bands of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and into his work as a leader, from his masterly chord-based explorations to his pathfinding free playing. This succinct section will be of most use to the reader with intermediate understanding of music theory; the unschooled will be frustrated by some of the more technical passages. (Some will also find themselves yearning for a critical discography, which is not to be found.) The second part takes a provocative and wide-ranging look at Coltrane as a kind of musical and cultural mirror. Though the musician was a reticent explicator of his own music, his sound both absorbed and reflected the social, political and spiritual upheavals of its time, and his later performances marked a stylistic dividing line for jazz musicians. (“See, cats are still trying to recover from the Trane explosion,” saxophonist Von Freeman notes.) The many ways in which Coltrane and his innovations have been apprehended and debated receive a lively, discursive, occasionally windy treatment from Ratliff. While the writer is justly skeptical of claims by Coltrane’s champions and detractors alike, he seems hesitant to forge a strong opinion of his own. He upends many clichéd positions about Trane, but in the end appears uncertain about exactly what is important or enduring in his oeuvre. This ambivalence mars what is otherwise a largely stimulating reconsideration of a jazz icon.
Not quite worthy of a love supreme.