On the Importance of Being Coltrane

Travis Jackson reviews Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound in The Nation:

here are few areas of music where repetition in its myriad forms assumes a greater significance–and holds greater promises of joy–than jazz. Despite the changes presented and challenges posed by many jazz recordings released in and after 1959 (Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps were all released that year), the essential core of jazz coalesces around group interplay over successive sonic cycles from twelve or thirty-two bars in length. The repetition and moment-to-moment alteration of harmonic progressions and melodic fragments, even when they recur in tunes with different names, provide a ground for further exploration. When alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley begins his fourth solo chorus on “Straight, No Chaser” (from the Davis album Milestones) with a blustery one-bar figure that Charlie Parker frequently used on blues-based tunes, we hear both possible results of repetition at work. Adderley doesn’t merely reproduce Bird’s tones and phrasing: he worries the line, twisting and transforming it almost as though he has caught himself falling back into old habits and is trying to break their hold.

The other saxophonist featured on that track, John Coltrane, had his own struggles with repetition. Indeed, one way of understanding Coltrane’s music and life is to see them as meditations on how to embrace and escape repetition. The tenor player’s lengthy practice routines, for example, are the stuff of legend. His previous biographers–including Bill Cole, Cuthbert Simpkins and J.C. Thomas–have detailed how Coltrane worked methodically through étude books like Sigurd Rascher’s Top-Tones for the Saxophone (1941) and Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947). Noting that musicians, too, are fascinated by these stories, Lewis Porter writes in Coltrane: His Life and Music (1998) that they “are told with apparent love, respect, and admiration. But there is often a suggestion that Coltrane’s practice was obsessive, that it was not a simple matter of working to improve, that there was an emotional desperation and drive in it that was somehow beyond the norm.” When Coltrane kept returning to the woodshed, he seems to have been reaching for something harder to achieve than instrumental mastery. It’s little wonder, then, that, like Porter, Coltrane’s other biographers and fans describe him as an ascetic treading difficult musical pathways in search of some greater truth.