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Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound - Ben Ratliff All the technical music talk in this book was above my head, but I really appreciated that Coltrane- The Story of A Sound occasionally gives me words for my sense of what's going on in John Coltrane's music. As one interviewee in the book says, his sound has"...a style that ha[s] no name, but [i]s a hopping and skipping kind of thing."That's exactly right! A lot of his improvisational play is based on scales, so there is a lot of up and down to it, which fits the feel of hopping and skipping. Tell me if you don't see it here in his 1959 breakthrough track "Giant Steps": (Click image for link) At other times, it has "a deep spacey interiority."Also, right on! Actually that phrase in the book is applied to the man, not his music, but I came across this clip, and I must admit that I'm not sure the name of the track or the album (if anybody knows, tell me!), but it sure fits the description. The phrase "sheets of sound" was one way Coltrane himself described his music. I think the image he's refering to is the scales undulating up and down, stretching out to infinity like a sine wave, or paper streamers.(Click image for link) One of my favorite Coltrane performances is the title track to his 1957 "Blue Train" album. (Click image for link) While the rest of the band has a lazy, loping, laid-back rhythm to it, Coltrane's sax practically erupts into the song at 00:37, like water boiling over in a pan. You know this guy isn't reading sheet music; these sounds are bubbling up out of him from somewhere deep down. The whole tune he jams like that, winding the melody into tight little knots of 1/16 notes or faster. The liner notes talk about the magic the whole ensemble felt during that recording... how each musician knew they were just nailing it and could do no wrong, and I can believe it. This whole album deserves solitude and freedom from distractions so you can really listen to all the stuff going on at once, and try to follow it. Get yourself a nice pair of headphones and a quiet place where nobody will bug you, and listen to this album from beginning to end; enjoy it like a glass of wine.Here's the title track of "Traneing In", also recorded in 1957, with a funky solo beginning about seven minutes in, by bassist Paul Chambers:(Click image for link) About midway through the song, sometimes I feel like it gets a bit directionless, the way improvisation sometimes does, but under the surface, it is complex and precise. The effect is similar to looking at some mundane object you might normally not give much thought to, like a rock... it's easy enough to dismiss if you aren't paying attention, but if you start to really inspect it, you can see the intricacies of its irregular surface and its many variagated colors. There is uniqueness and complexity there, hiding in plain sight. Is that an unflattering comparison? This is such beautiful music. I'm talking about rocks like this:Okay, so back to the book... if you listen to a "classic rock" radio station, you'll get a sense after a while that the "classic" period of rock must have been from about the mid-1960's to the late 70's (excluding disco). Those stations always play lots of Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Kinks... and many more, but you get the idea. Even if this music is not your cup of tea, it seems like it should be easy to appreciate why a lot of people think it's really good. It's different from the music that came before. It's fresh and innovative and energetic -or at least it was, when it first came out. It is interesting to note that Carlos Santana, The Byrds, Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead), The Doors and Frank Zappa are all classic rock-era musicians who cite Coltrane or specific Coltrane works as direct influences. Jazz seems to have an era like that too... nothing official, mind you, but a period from the early 50's to the mid 60's. The big names of this era are most of the big names of jazz as a whole: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Thelonnius Monk, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane (among others). This music was unlike what came before too, and author Ben Ratliff tells us why: One of the curious consequences of World War II was that it ended the Big Band era, by removing most musicians from home to the front, and by rationing gas and rubber to the point that large touring orchestras were financially impractical. By the end of the war, the music scene (both jazz and other categories) came to be dominated by quartets, quintets and soloists. This was the shape of jazz, in Coltrane's musically formative years. The book begins with Coltrane playing saxophone with his Navy buddies in 1946, when he was stationed on Oahu. The end of the Big Band era. Coltrane from his Navy band days in Oahu... he's the sax player at the bottom far right.[Refrence]Coltrane played saxophone, and arguably (because somebody always argues) the premire saxophone soloist of the day was Charlie Parker. When Coltrane got out of the Navy, he made his way to New York, where he played clubs to hone his skills and pay the rent. Within a year, he had actually met Charlie Parker, and after another year, he got to play with him. That was the state of jazz back then- still very much a tiny, unappreciated subculture. For an unknown to decide they want to become a jazz musician, and then within two years, they're working with one of the all-time luminaries kind of blows my mind. That would be like me deciding I want to start playing basketball, and within a few months, I've met Michael Jordan, and he and I are shooting hoops together down at the park. That's crazy. But that's how things were back then, it seems. This book is filled with figures from the pantheon of jazz just hanging out, trading notes, jamming together, playing clubs. Some of it is kind of surreal... the banter between Miles Davis and Coltrane is so fun, you can forget they are legends:Davis: Why'd you jam on for so long during that solo?Coltrane: That's how long it took to get it all in.Or another time:Coltrane: I wasn't sure how to finish that solo.Davis: How about taking the horn out of your mouth? After his stint in Davis' band, Coltrane went on to work with Thelonious Monk, and apparently he learned something deep and meaningful about harmonies there, the specifics of which elude me. The book does redeem itself (to me) for all this technical talk, by making some nice recommendations for tracks to listen to, which illustrate things going on with Coltrane, at different phases of his development. I found some interesting clips online that way. Here's Coltrane's collaboration with Thelonious Monk on a track called "Trinkle Trinkle":(Click image for link) I guess this book drove home to me- to a much greater degree than I had known before- to what extent these guys not only knew each other, but performed together and influenced each other. After a while, I got to thinking "Hmmm.. I haven't heard of Miles Davis collaborating with Bill Evans yet"... and sure enough, eventually it would come up. In that sense, reading this book is sort of like watching a tv show like "Friends", where all the characters eventually sleep with each other in all the possible combinations.Here's some groovy LIVE FOOTAGE of Coltrane and Miles Davis on a track called "So What?"(Click image for link) The footage in the YouTube link is a different performance from what is pictured in the image above, but check out the image: who's that on piano? Bill Evans! "So what?", indeed!Even though many parts caused my eyes to glaze over, the few personal tidbits about Coltrane were enough to make the read overall worthwhile. As far as what the author intended, I'm not sure the book succeeded. Supposedly the book's purpose is to describe Coltrane's "sound", but there's a limit to how much you can describe a sound with words, isn't there? And Coltrane went through a lot of different periods of experimentation, so his sound was always in flux anyhow. Did he have a definite "sound"? I'm not sure. I never got a sense from this author what he thought the essence of Coltrane's music was. Then I got to thinking about other music. What would I say was the Beatles' "sound". It changed quite a bit from "Love Me Do" to "Revolution #9", didn't it? My point is just that part of my disappointment may have come from my limitations as a reader, but perhaps the book's ambitions were a bit unrealistic too.I just realized I've been making Beatles comparisons again, and that's because Coltrane's career reminded me in some ways of the Beatles. He started off very conventional, but became very experimental. In 1961- long before the Beatles did- he started studying Hinduism, and hanging out with a guru/mentor/spiritual guide named Sun Ra. Then- also predating the Beatles by some years- he started experimenting with various Indian reed instruments. Here I thought the Beatles were so original and trippy, doing this stuff, when Coltrade had covered all that ground almost a decade earlier. Unfortunately, Coltrane's history is a bit darker, what with his heroin addiction and the liver cancer which killed him at 40. That part is both humbling and disheartening. Humbling because when I listen to Coltrane, I know I'm hearing timeless and brilliant music created by a man at minimum four years my junior. Disheartening of course because the common element of all tragedies is unfulfilled potential, and Coltrane left this world with a ton of it. Here's one more for the road: the track "Lazy Bird". The cover of the single is pictured below, but you can find the song on the "Blue Train" album:(Click image for the link) The piano intro and the trumpet in this song are also very nice, no?