“Holding someone is truly believing there’s joy in repetition,” sings Prince in one of the standout tracks on his 1990 album Graffiti Bridge. Typically for Prince, the song’s lyrics and music sketch a scenario of seduction, one hinging on the incantatory power of repetition. Unusually, though, the song’s narrator is the one seduced, drawn in by the way a woman repeatedly sings the words “Love me.” In my mind’s ear I always mishear the first word of the song’s seductive tagline as “loving” instead of “holding.” At the same time, I unconsciously substitute “something” for “someone.” In neither case do I lose the sense of the song. If anything, the mishearings make the conceit a little richer: loving something is truly believing there’s joy in repetition.

There 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.

One result of Coltrane’s study was the consolidation of his “three-tonic” approach to improvising and composing during the late 1950s. The approach was inspired partly by exercises in Slonimsky’s book and partly by the time Coltrane spent studying classical composition with Dennis Sandole at the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia. While working through tunes or soloing, Coltrane would imagine each chord as providing at least three equidistant (within the Western chromatic scale) points of departure. Marshaling his prodigious technique, he would often try to explore all three on a given sonority–leading critic Ira Gitler to describe his solos as cascading “sheets of sound.” In his composing, Coltrane deployed the system (inspired by the major-third-separated harmonic weigh stations in the bridge of Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?”) to break away from typical harmonic movement. In either case, he was trying to push himself, and perhaps his fellow musicians, toward greater heights of originality, to move them away from repetition. Arguably, though, Coltrane and his band mates needed to work through the changes repeatedly to keep them from sounding dry and academic. One need merely compare Tommy Flanagan’s halting solo on “Giant Steps” with Coltrane’s to hear why that is so.

Ben Ratliff, a jazz critic for the New York Times since 1996, makes similar observations in his new, not-quite-biography Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. In discussing “Giant Steps,” Ratliff observes that by 1959, “Coltrane was theory mad.” He continually studied recordings and books about music and philosophy and created challenges for himself and other musicians based on that study: “The ‘Giant Steps’ changes were the stiffest exercise he had as yet given himself as an athlete of improvising…. Why did Coltrane do this?… He felt…he wasn’t good enough. But even after he had written a series of jazz’s all-time great études, mastered them, made a watertight album out of them…he remained discontented.” Ratliff suggests that Coltrane’s philosophical readings may have been both a catalyst for repetition and the vehicle through which he mined something deeper. He suggests as well that Coltrane might have been influenced by Hazrat Inayat Khan’s lectures, collected in a volume titled The Mysticism of Sound and Music. Summarizing the book, Ratliff says that Khan “wrote about repetition (‘If you repeat: flower, flower, flower, your mind will be much more impressed than if you only think of the flower’). He wrote about how music leaves ‘impressions’ on plants and living things. (One of the chapters in the book is titled ‘Impressions’–is it a coincidence that this became the title of a Coltrane song and album?)”

Coltrane is filled with many similar tantalizing suggestions, thanks in part to its differences from other Coltrane books. Ratliff condenses the biography proper into the first part of the book in order to devote himself in part two to a lengthy consideration of the saxophonist’s influence since his death. Even more important, the book is less about music than it is about sound–as jazz musicians understand it: “every musician finally needs a sound, a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note.” Ratliff’s ideas about sound go further, encompassing the result of musicians’ playing collectively and the word’s sensual and cognitive dimensions: “how [sound] feels in the ear and…how it feels in the memory, as mass and as metaphor.” All of Coltrane’s practicing, all of his encounters with his idols and contemporaries, all of the changes in musical direction were, Ratliff might say, part of a search for an elusive sound.

John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926 and moved to Philadelphia a few months shy of his seventeenth birthday. After a brief stint in the Navy, he returned to Philadelphia and gradually started gaining the notice of other musicians. He played with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band between 1949 and 1951 and worked in bands led by Earl Bostic, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Johnny Hodges between 1952 and 1954. He truly started to come into his own, the standard narratives say, when he was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet (1955-57) and during a lengthy 1957 residency at the Five Spot as a member of Thelonious Monk’s quartet. He made his own recordings during those years for Prestige and Blue Note–Blue Train (1957) was perhaps the best of his early efforts as a bandleader. The recordings that he made for Atlantic, especially Giant Steps and My Favorite Things (1961), helped to cement his growing reputation. Indeed, when ABC-Paramount launched Impulse! in 1960 with Creed Taylor as its head, Coltrane was the first artist it signed, and he remains to this day its marquee act. The albums he recorded for the label–Africa/Brass (1961), Live at the Village Vanguard (1961), A Love Supreme (1964), Transition (recorded in 1965, released posthumously), Meditations (1965) and Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (1966) among them–are the best examples of why Coltrane looms large in jazz history. For musicians, his marathon solos, especially on the live recordings, are primers on how to get the most from limited harmonic material. For musicians and fans they are magical, inspiring wonder at the kind of person who could play with such passion, such creativity and such force.

The members of his “classic quartet”–pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and especially drummer Elvin Jones–were perfect fellow travelers for Coltrane between 1961 and 1965. Together the four produced sublimely beautiful ballads and churning explorations of static harmony, off-kilter rhythms and unbridled intensity. Where Coltrane’s work in the 1950s had been about exploring the intricacies of harmony, his work here was about exploring and extending the very nature of group interaction. A taped 1965 broadcast from the Half Note, released as One Down, One Up (2005), makes audible why the live quartet was an almost elemental force. On the twenty-eight-minute title track, Coltrane’s solo is passionate and blistering, Tyner’s accompaniment is searching and insistent and Garrison’s playing alternately confirms and troubles the groove. When the latter two drop out, Jones’s drumming comes to the fore. His thirteen-minute duet with Coltrane is a paragon of inventiveness–and endurance.

In early 1965, Coltrane again changed direction, this time going where even his longtime band mates and dedicated fans were reluctant to follow. His music seemed to be approaching the condition of noise, and his eagerness to embrace young, untested musicians onstage and in the studio felt like an affront to the members of his quartet. The addition of drummer Rashied Ali, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and pianist Alice Coltrane, his wife, to the group prompted Jones and Tyner to leave Coltrane. His “late” recordings, from 1965 until his death in 1967, have inspired adulation and, more often, puzzlement.

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 [1967]. 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.