I won't waste time trying to be funny about John Coltrane, because Philip Larkin has already done it, lavishing all his comic invention on the task of conveying his authentic rage. (For those who have never read Larkin's All What Jazz, incidentally, the references to Coltrane are the ideal way in to the burning center of Larkin's critical vision.) There is nothing to be gained by trying to evoke the full, face-freezing, gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane does that Webster doesn't. But there might be some value in pointing out what Coltrane doesn't do that Webster does. Coltrane's instrument is likewise a tenor sax, but there the resemblance ends. In fact, it is only recognizable as a tenor because it can't be a bass or a soprano: It has a tenor's range but nothing of the voice that Hawkins discovered for it and Webster focused and deepened. There is not a phrase that asks to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.
From 'Duke Ellington: The Supremacy of Swing' in Slate. Other chapters from Cultural Amnesia on Slate here.
More invective coming up shortly. It's the season for it, apparently.
Disclaimer: The thing about invective is one doesn't need to agree with it to be entertained by it.