Ernie's Reviews > Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

Coltrane by Ben Ratliff
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's review
Jan 12, 10

bookshelves: black-atlantic-studies, music-criticism, american-studies
Read in January, 2010

Quick, fun, yet highly insightful read.

While most music critics concern themselves with drawing distinctions between the various stylistic phases of a musician's career, Ratliff pursues the unity of a musician's 'sound' — "a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note," (x). For him, Trane's 'sound' is the end result of "a slow but unstoppable process" (202) that unified his diverse experiments with a seemingly endless variety of styles.

Crucially, the focus on 'sound' allows Ratliff to evade a narrow focus on the man himself. In other words, this is not a hagiography. The reason? Simple: the only structure capable of allowing a musician to cultivate his or her 'sound,' according to Ratliff, is a band — preferably one that stays together for a long time, gigs regularly, and allows its members the time to play and play until they can synthesize their varied influences into unity. Without taking away from Trane's incessant — even obsessive — practicing regimen, Ratliff insists that Trane's supremacy was also a result of his luck in finding great bands — Monk's, Miles', later his own — that allowed him the time and the freedom to develop.

Ratliff narrates with brio, passion, and a virtuosic vocabulary, layering metaphors like Trane's famous "sheets of sound" (Ira Gitler). In the process, he shows off his own 'sound' while seeking Coltrane's. Thankfully, this willingness to use a purple passage here and there does not obscure Ratliff's broad knowledge about music, nor his ability to ground his discussions in specific elements of rhythm, harmony, melody, &c. I also enjoyed Ratliff's consistent effort to link Trane up with larger American artistic trends, beyond jazz and also in other art forms. Definitely enjoyable, even a bit inspiring.
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