Jazz needs to find a better way to live with the ghost of John Coltrane, says music critic Ben Ratliff. When the North Carolina–born saxophonist died at 40 of liver cancer, in 1967, he left behind two aesthetic ideals that have divided acolytes ever since. After kicking heroin at 30, he attained a hard-won virtuosity in hard bop that set a new pinnacle for those who considered jazz a contest of wills. Having climbed that mountain, he began exploring a free-form, trance-like style of improvisation that sounded like pure spirit unbound. Many have tried to follow him, but few have made those paths feel new.

Ratliff’s “profound little book” is the story of Coltrane’s work, not his life, said RJ Smith in the Los Angeles Times. More than that, though, it’s an attempt to retrace the strains in jazz that converged in Coltrane, so that today’s players can think about how to move past him. Coltrane’s ascent was rapid. As other critics have noted, the serial underachiever’s breakthrough came only in mid-1957, when he joined Thelonious Monk for a six-month gig at New York’s Five Spot. But tireless effort eventually earned him a dazzling technical facility. As always, The New York Times’ Ratliff proves to be a great listener. He’s never afraid to describe Coltrane performances that didn’t gel, and he’s great at conveying a sound or even
a whole body of work “with a few deft strokes.”

A year before his death, said Richard B. Woodward in Bookforum, Coltrane responded to a reporter’s question about his future by claiming that he aspired to be a saint. Thanks to a purity of intent that he exhibited in both modes of jazz that he mastered, his wish even came true. What Ratliff wants us to recognize, though, is that Coltrane’s best music emerged “during a period of deep friendships and intense musical relationships,” said Dean C. Smith in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer. If there’s a way out from under Coltrane’s shadow, in other words, jazz artists must find it by giving up on trying to be the “next” Coltrane. Individual achievement isn’t the point. As Ratliff puts it, “The truth of jazz is in its bands.”