Play It (Over and Over Again)
Ratliff's book is intelligent and compelling. The text and its sources reveal how seriously he took his task. In addition to working with biographies and interviews, some of which must have been difficult to locate, Ratliff also draws on obscure radio programs, various unpublished materials, thirty-nine interviews he conducted with musicians and countless conversations with people knowledgeable about jazz, American culture and New York City. Throughout he tackles topics that might seem the province of academics--such as the merits of Theodor Adorno's and Edward Said's ideas about "late style"--with considerable skill and clarity. His skepticism regarding advocates of late style, for instance, emerges from common sense, and he dismisses the conceit with a gentle touch of the romanticism that infuses it:
Mainly, an artist's final work won't objectively sum up anything. It is, however, likely to be fuller of subjectivity than ever before. It's full of the life force: that's all, that's enough, that's what it needs to be. If it's truly good and powerful, it deserves to engender a thousand misunderstandings.
Clearly, Ratliff is not afraid to call things as they are. At various points he hurls barbs at those less keenly attuned to history and musical complexity. He subtly takes a Down Beat reviewer to task for calling Coltrane's music angry, observing that "to anyone who might have been taken aback by a black man talking at length and with force, then, yes, such music could have been the equivalent of angry speech." And in a cranky but welcome gesture, he gives those neobohemians who willfully seem to misunderstand Coltrane's music their comeuppance when he says parenthetically, "Believe this: there is a type of free-jazz record collector--in fact, after punk, part of an increasingly flourishing breed--who does not necessarily think of Africa when he hears a Coltrane album like Expression . Having come through punk, Japanese noise, and electro-acoustic improvisation, he may just like it because it sounds extreme and nonnegotiable." Coltrane's music deserves both a less hagiographic and a more reflective and nuanced treatment, and that's what Ratliff offers.
While Ratliff avers in his introduction that he is a writer rather than a musician, his discussions of the sound of Coltrane and Coltrane's compatriots in performance are informative and compelling, especially when his own writing captures the spirit and feel of a recording in ways that a transcription never could. Describing a version of "Nutty" from Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (a 1957 recording unearthed and released in 2005), he writes:
Coltrane has become agile, finding a flexible way of running his original patterns--patterns based on whole tones, on dominant sevenths, on diminished scales. Monk balances an inscrutable serenity against driving, almost violent rhythmic figures. And everything coming from Shadow Wilson, the drummer, is to be savored: he guards and upholds the groove, while building small, richly detailed accents around it.
Most important, Ratliff focuses his observational eye again and again on the power and perils of repetition, both for Coltrane and the jazz musicians who have emerged since his death. Like Miles Davis, who once told an interviewer that he stopped playing ballads because he liked them so much, Coltrane was attracted and repelled by the familiar, sometimes finding in it something fresh, sometimes not. His relentless search for a sound is what inspires musicians, fans and critics to keep returning to his music forty years after his death. (That same search is surely the reason Coltrane's home in Dix Hills, New York, was recently added to the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places, why the TraneStop Resource Institute of Philadelphia recently held its second John Coltrane Jazz Festival and why, more controversially, the St. John Coltrane Church continues to operate in San Francisco.) Indeed, Ratliff's reconsideration of a musician who has already been the subject of countless books, poems and documentaries is perhaps a subtle reminder of how much joy there is in repetition. Like the best writing on music, his book not only provides food for thought but also creates an insatiable desire to go back to the recordings, in hopes that we too might discover some elusive truth.