Tuesday, 30 December 2008

John Coltrane...

Well, here we are. December not yet done and 10,000 visitors clocked-up without resorting to any desperate measures to lure in the visitors. Considering that this blog is two-and-a-half years old that's not a great amount of 'hits', but concerning its self as it does with some pretty obscure subject matter, and offering no free downloads, it isn't too bad really.

Christmas passed without further worsening of our ailments, and a nice time was had by all. I've just started on the latest batch of reviews for the magazine, and in between times I'm keeping busy building flat-pack furniture from Ikea and setting up data bases for the sheer hell of it on Bento 2. Louise is honing her skills as an electrician, and so far remains unfrazzled.

Amongst the latest batch of CDs to review is a monumental 2CD set by Henry Grimes, playing an uninterrupted bass and violin solo performance lasting almost 3 hours. Giantism, a feat of endurance, and some times hard work for this listener. Neverthless, I like it.

Time to get back to posting more reviews, and to finish off the year I'll go for something a little bit different. The following is a book review, or more accurately two book reviews. Only the Ratliff section was actually published, so here I'm presenting the piece in its entirety, 'for the first time', as they say.

John Coltrane, That should guarantee a few more 'hits'...

Coltrane: The Story Of A Sound
By Ben Ratliff
Hardcover 250pp Faber & Faber; ISBN-13: 978-0-374-12606-3

The John Coltrane Reference
Chris DeVito, Yashuhiro Fujioka, Wolf Schmaler and David Wild and edited by Lewis Porter.
Hardcover 848pp Routledge; ISBN-13: 978-0-415-97755-5

Author Ben Ratliff wasn’t even born when Coltrane died in 1967, aged just 40. Despite already carving out an impressive and enviable niche as a music correspondent for the New York Times, he doesn’t even turn 40 himself until next year. Why is this important? Well, unlike writers who were there to witness Coltrane emerge and evolve, Ratliff has a certain critical distance that allows him to approach the subject in something of a post-Coltrane manner. With so much received wisdom - sometimes bordering on mythology or worship - surrounding this musical giant, a fresh perspective is no bad thing.

Ratliff sets out to tackle much of the froth head-on, offering as many new questions as answers. The book’s title gives a sizeable clue as to its purpose. Although structured chronologically, this is not a conventional biography. For that approach we have Lewis Porter, and if you want something lighter for the coffee table, Ashley Khan’s excellent overview of A Love Supreme is heartily recommended. Ratliff takes a middle road, tracing the evolution of Coltrane’s distinctive sound in what is best described as a critical and cultural study. Loosely structured as a book of two overlapping halves, the first offers a critical skip through Coltrane’s recorded legacy, illuminated with wider reference to external influences on his musical development. The second is devoted to the reception of the music within his lifetime - a journey from frequent hostility towards deification and an all-pervading posthumous influence on countless followers.

Ratliff, as a music critic, is in a descriptive business, and although an engaging writer, he wisely knows that nothing he writes will ever surpass Ira Gitler’s ‘sheets of sound’ to describe the late ‘50s chord stacking. What his book offers in spades is a persuasive discourse, underpinned by diligent research, with many insights into how Coltrane reached his various landmarks - practicing arpeggios from an exercise book written for harpists that were never intended to be played by saxophonists, for example. Coltrane was nothing if not a hard worker, as Ratliff’s often amusing anecdotes about the prodigious practice regime illustrate. The importance of his association with Monk gets a welcome analysis and is often over looked. Compared to the association with Miles Davis that followed, there is little recorded evidence available for us to listen to today despite the many hours they spent together gigging. His description of the hothouse learning that was their residency at The Five Spot in the summer of 1957 is just one of many valuable and memorable sections in the book.

Where I feel that Ratliff sometimes falls down is in the more subjective side of his analysis. His view that it has taken thirty years to achieve a mainstream rapprochement between jazz pre and post ‘New Thing’ is debateable. This may well be true of the American experience, but in Europe it took less than a decade for Jarrett, Garbarek and the nascent ECM sound to reach the popular consciousness. That said, subjectivity goes with the terrain in any critical study, and I’d rather read a book that engages and challenges. By and large, much of what Ratliff presents in this book chimed with me.

A sympathetic treatment of Coltrane’s last years more than compensates for a possible over-concentration on the ‘50s. In fairness to Ratliff, the earlier decade when Coltrane’s sound underwent its biggest growth spurt, moving from a jobbing be-bopper to chord scientist in a relatively short space of time. After ‘Giant Steps’ it became more of a logical process of refinement, moving from modal to free playing with a solid bank of technique to draw on at will. Ratliff ventures the bold working hypothesis that Coltrane’s development can essentially be viewed wholly in terms of sound, a linear progression in which he abandoned musical structure in pursuit of ‘pure sound’. The idea is expounded at length, and although attractive in many ways it seems to me to be an over-imposition of hindsight. I doubt whether Coltrane ever really saw his work in such terms, which is not to say that sound wasn’t important to him. His obsession with mouthpieces attests to his attention to detail, though I suspect that it was something done primarily in the service of music. Viewing later works such as Interstellar Space purely in terms of sound seems to under-appreciate just how much Coltrane’s liberation from conventional musical structures was a logical extension of the old language, a more direct and even democratic form of musical expression.

Possibly because it remains such a controversial period so ripe for re-evaluation, Ratliff is at his best when writing about the period during and after the progressive alienation of Tyner and Jones. His unearthing of many contemporaneously published critical receptions of the ‘New Thing’ is fascinating and gives a better summary of the period than any I’ve previously read. Coltrane’s wanton and self-absorbed abandonment of a considerable body of critically acclaimed work is juxtaposed with insights gained, from Rashied Ali amongst others, of a warm and generous spirit who encouraged a new generation to express themselves through music. In the case of Frank Wright, who could barely play at the time of his first encounter with Coltrane, that generosity comes dangerously close to naivety. Ratliff draws on the social and cultural background, a time of strife and upheaval, and offers many thought provoking explanations. The rumours of Coltrane’s heavy use of LSD in the run up to his death are alluded to, but more on the veracity of those claims and their significance in terms of the trajectory of his music would have been welcome, and may even have supported Ratliff’s notion of a man in pursuit of raw sound-blocks.

Not even setting out to be the definitive Coltrane book, Ratliff very nearly succeeds in achieving this feat. Inevitably for such a project he must draw on biographical material and approach the subject in a linear and narrative style. More scholarly and granular musicological analysis is certainly available elsewhere, but Ratliff’s neat descriptive turn and alternately bold and temperate perspectives make this a provocative but highly readable work. If you’re after a book that deals with both the man and his music, placing it all within a thoroughly researched contextual framework, look no further.

In much the same way as with a telephone directory, The John Coltrane Reference is not a book you could sit down and read from cover to cover. Details of every live performance, broadcast and even media interview that Coltrane gave in his lifetime are all contained within. Edited by Lewis Porter, author of the most highly regarded Coltrane biography to date (John Coltrane: His Life And Music), it makes a great supplement to that work. Sometimes this weighty slab seems to be a series of lists for the sake of lists, bald factual chronology without analysis or comment. Flicking it open even randomly should however reveal fascinating nuggets of information. Did you know that Jack DeJohnette gigged with ‘trane at The Plugged Nickel in 1996, for example? Or that Clark Terry and Coleman Hawkins played opposite Coltrane’s explosive group with Pharoah Sanders when Live at the Village Vanguard Again! was cut? Reprints of contemporaneous reviews remind us of the controversy Coltrane generated at the time and sometimes prove a welcome antidote to the book’s dryness. Rather like Raltliff’s volume, this work offers something unique and not available elsewhere. You could argue that what is essentially a hard copy database may have been better published online, but as with your telephone directory there will almost certainly be times when you’re glad you had it to hand. Not a cheap book by any means, but for your money you’ll get a reassuringly solid volume that is exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated and thoroughly researched. Unlike Ratliff’s work, this is perhaps a book only for hardcore fans, but a commendable venture nonetheless.

Fred Grand

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