Ghost trane

Music - Richard Cook on the spiritual father of jazz improvisation

John Coltrane was a natural subject for photographers. Every study of him portrays this big, heavy-framed, saintly-looking man, implacably serious. He holds his saxophones as if they were holy divining rods, in search of some mystical revelation. He sounds like that, too. Coltrane's solos, as full of notes as a storm is full of raindrops, drench the listener. No wonder he's been the spiritual touchstone in jazz for the past 40 years. Peculiarly inscrutable, even as he sounds like the most passionate of improvisers, he is the peerless puzzle in jazz history: what was he trying to say?

It's a conundrum that has obsessed many listeners ever since. Coltrane left a large body of official recordings and an almost comparable corpus of unauthorised material: as with Charlie Parker, a generation earlier, there were disciples ready to capture anything the master played. As a result, since his death in 1967, there has been a steady stream of "new" Coltrane, from the tapes of the legendary quartet with Thelonious Monk at New York's Five Spot in the Fifties to the very latest trove: a seven-disc accumulation of recordings from various European sojourns during 1961-63, Live Trane: the European tours (Pablo), and a disc of material from what purports to be his final recorded gig, The Olatunji Concert (Impulse!), cut just weeks before his death.

Like his former boss Miles Davis, Coltrane relentlessly recycled his source material. There are five versions of "My Favourite Things" scattered through the Pablo box, and half of the Olatunji set is given over to a final, hair-raising demolition of what was - we need to remind ourselves - a sweet little song from The Sound of Music. The further he got into the marrow of his art, the less his starting point mattered to Coltrane. The journeying itself became everything. In effect, he dispensed with the building blocks as soon as he could, and from there, he simply unreeled whatever was spinning round in his head.

Every jazz musician has to deal with the same thing - how do I make something new out of this raw matter? - but for Coltrane, it was a titanic struggle against the material. Since Parker, jazz musicians had chafed against chord sequences and harmonic patterns. Coltrane tried to overcome these problems by playing every alternative he could come up with. Miles Davis once told me that he regarded Coltrane as "a very greedy man", and you can hear that in the way he plays: he has to exhaust every avenue before he moves on to the next thing. At the same time, Coltrane was somehow a prisoner of his past. He had already worked for many years in bar bands before he achieved any eminence, and unlike many of his contemporaries in the ferment of Sixties free jazz, he had a lot of unlearning to do. On the Pablo tracks where he plays with his fellow saxophonist Eric Dolphy, there's the curious experience of the heavyweight bruiser lumbering around the fast, light-on-his-feet Dolphy.

As with The Beatles, Coltrane's legacy was condensed in to a brief span. His major career as a recording artist covered a period of seven years, 1959-66. That epoch began with the likes of Giant Steps and ended with the all but inchoate turbulence of his final group, with another fellow saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders, taking an even more extreme line, and the drummer, Rashied Ali, creating a constant thunder behind them both. Individual pieces might run on for 40, even 50 minutes. The Olatunji Concert is being held up as a harbinger of the many futures of jazz, but much of it sounds like shouting into a void (and prospective buyers should be warned that it is atrociously recorded). Having marched away from R&B and bebop and into a freedom that he perhaps never really understood, Coltrane's unfinished business is the most perplexing thing about him.

The music on Live Trane is a much more tractable experience, and often disarmingly beautiful. When he tackles a favourite ballad such as "I Want to Talk About You", its cadenza rippling with saxophone notes, it is not hard to feel that this is the Coltrane you want to remember, and learn from. Do we need another seven CDs of this music, adding to an already vast and demanding discography? Taking on Trane can be like going 15 rounds in search of a points victory. The British bassist Gary Crosby, who leads the marvellous Jazz Jamaica group, recently put it very well: "I don't get much time to listen to Coltrane now. You need a weekend to do this, and sometimes it's just a bit too truthful; but when I need to touch base with the truth, I'll put it on."