More than 40 years after his death in 1967, John Coltrane, the iconic jazz saxophonist, still casts an imposing shadow over jazz. Ravi Coltrane, who never met his famous father, is well aware of his namesake’s exalted position in the jazz pantheon.
Because of that connection, or, perhaps, in spite of it, Ravi Coltrane has embarked on what might be one of the most difficult journeys in jazz, where seeking one’s own voice remains the ultimate goal. For the past two decades, the younger Coltrane, now 42, has become a fine jazz musician, even playing the two horns favored by his famous dad, the tenor and soprano.
It’s been a somewhat tricky traversal of the jazz landscape, but Coltrane is emerging as a player on his own terms.
His most recent quartet recording, 2005’s “In Flux” (Savoy), received widespread critical acclaim, and the music - nuanced, almost delicate pieces featuring a great deal of interplay between the quartet’s musicians - suggest the saxophonist is maturing as both a player, composer and leader.
Still, the going has been slow and steady, a journey Coltrane started in his twenties, relatively late by modern standards and especially so for the scion of one of jazz’s most beloved players.
“I did play clarinet in junior high and high school,” the softspoken Coltrane said from his Brooklyn home. In his early teens, he flirted with the idea of becoming a filmmaker. “I grew up in L.A.; man, everybody wants to make films,” he says with a quick laugh.
But he says he never “actively pursued the film thing. I was drawn more to jazz music, and my father’s music in particular. I started listening to jazz much more seriously at that time in my life. By 1984, 1985, the music was starting to have another type of meaning to me.”
The issue of influences, his father’s in particular, is a question he is familiar with. There’s a slight, barely perceivable sigh as he answers the question he’s been asked hundreds of times: How does he deal with the issue of his father’s influence on his music?
“It has to be as organic as possible,” he says, “Even if my last name was Smith. For this kind of music, it is hard to manufacture. It is hard to do things unless your gut is really in it. I imagine I could do it, if I just did what people told me I should do, or did something that people will like. But, 10 years down the road, I’d be unfulfilled, and it might make me want to retreat from music forever.
“Music is much more important than that. We have to develop organically. We need to find the sort of natural places where our playing styles and our music settles.”
Coltrane seems most proud of the fact that his current quartet has been together since 2002, making it one of the music’s few working bands or groups where the personnel remains the same for any significant period of time and the musicians get a chance to work on and develop music over time.
“I think I’ve always recognized the benefits of having those consistent types of musical relationships,” Coltrane says. “That’s an overblown way of saying it’s good to have your own band.”
The group, which includes pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Guess and drummer E.J. Strickland, allows Coltrane to develop musical ideas slowly.
Even with his previous group, which was together for about two years, Coltrane tried to nurture and incubate his music.
“There was a piece I wrote on piano, `Between Lines,’” he recalls, from his “Mad 6” recording, released in 2003. “It was just based on an improvisation. It had no shape, no rhythmic form. At first, it made no sense to any of us. But we worked on it slowly, first in rehearsals, and then at sound checks, and then playing parts of it before (set) breaks. If I didn’t have a band to work this out, we would have dropped the idea. That’s the way I want to approach my music.”
Coltrane’s evolutionary style may explain his relatively small output as a leader, four CDs in a decade. He’s also recorded with saxophonist Steve Coleman and late drummer Elvin Jones, who was a member of his father’s classic quartet in the 1960s.
“I usually take a bit of time between recordings, but this has been a real challenging couple of years. I’m waiting for the ideas to come in and waiting for the music to come together within the group,” Coltrane says.
Coltrane also mentions a “non-musical challenge,” as he puts it - the death in January of his mother, the pianist Alice Coltrane, who had three sons with the jazz legend. Their eldest son, John Coltrane Jr., died in a car accident in 1982. Ravi, the second-oldest, was named after Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar.
Alice and John Coltrane met at Birdland, the fabled Manhattan jazz club, in 1962. They married in 1965, the year Ravi was born, and lived in Dix Hills, N.J. In the years before John Coltrane’s death, the saxophone legend introduced Alice, a child musical prodigy (piano and harp) from Detroit, to Eastern religions, and the fascination continued after Coltrane died from complications of liver cancer in 1967. She eventually founded an ashram near Los Angeles and adopted a Hindu name.
“There is no greater loss than that,” Coltrane says of his mother’s death at age 69. He produced and played on her last recording, 2004’s “Translinear Light” (Impulse), her first jazz recording in more than a decade. “It is probably wrong to make these grand assumptions that certain people are always gong to be there.”
Still, Coltrane says he is “hammering away” at a new recording, and plans to continue his quest.
“It’s a natural progression of all the things I’ve experienced as a musician, all the music I’ve listened to and all the people I’ve worked with. Those are the things that really inform a person’s playing.”