When it comes to Ravi Coltrane, the term “well schooled” might come across as an understatement. Yes, this is John Coltrane’s son that we are talking about, a fact that has been firmly established and noted by the wider jazz community over the last fifteen years. This community has graciously granted him his own right to fly, and it is well-deserved. Ravi Coltrane has slowly built his own reputation, first as a support player with impeccable taste and phrasing, then as an increasingly free-thinking and unpredictable frontman. His slow burn approach has resulted in an escalated sense of creativity and urgency over the course of his last few releases.
Spirit Fiction is his first release on the famed Blue Note label. It is endowed with a full range of influences, from east coast post-bop bliss to the free jazz wanderings that fans have come to expect to sound from Coltrane’s reed. This wide range is due, in part, to Coltrane’s use of two different groups of musicians on this outing. The first lineup consists of members of Coltrane’s well established quartet consisting of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer E.J. Strickland. As we might expect, this group is tightly in sync, and juxtaposed with the more free flowing vibe of the second lineup, a quintet consisting of trumpet player Ralph Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus, and drummer Eric Harland. These players were last heard with Coltrane on the 2000 release Round Box.
Spirit Fiction consists of six original sketches by Coltrane, three by pianist Geri Allen, and two cover tunes. Interpretations of Ornette Coleman’s “Check Out Time” and Paul Motian’s “Fantasm” round out the variety of compositional voices. “Fantasm” is a highlight originating from Keith Jarrett’s Byablue. Joe Lavano’s guest saxophone on this track serves as a fitting tribute to the recently deceased Motian.
The breath of Spirit Fiction lies in its attempt to reconcile the new with the old, even using studio technology on a mash-up approach on the twin tracks “Roads Cross” and “Cross Roads”. On these, the quartet was recorded as two duos, then mixed together in an overdubbing process. The result is mostly successful, but even more importantly, this approach opens up new possibilities. This kind of experimentation is set among solid post-bop tracks like “Klepto” and the bold romanticism that plays out on tunes like “The Change, My Girl”. An intriguing drum and sax duet “Spring & Hudson” comes along half way through the album to demonstrate the simple complexity that Spirit Fiction hopes to achieve.
On every track, Coltrane is pushing himself out of his comfort zone, and through the colors of both groups. The result is at times disjointed, as if his desire to build on tradition, and the impulse to indulge, are not able to reconcile in a way that consistently produces cohesion. However, this tension is obviously an attempt to push his jazz instincts forward. He should be commended for this attempt. It is hard to fault this very particular weakness in the face of such brilliant playing and musicianship. A few other critics have noted the lack of forward momentum throughout Spirit Fiction, and they are right. There are many points when the swirling energies coincide to create true jazz dynamism, but future experimentation in the vein of Coltrane’s current trajectory will promise even more great moments. This struggle between free-flight, and the kind of straightforward melodicism that makes jazz widely accessible, is a perennial tension within modern jazz. Coltrane’s approach, and his comfortability with the tension, seems increasingly relevant in an age of quantum mechanics. Spirit Fiction proves that he is the real deal and a perfect fit for his new label. It is a more than pleasing ride that never quite soars into the stratosphere, laying a firm foundation of artistry while hinting towards even greater things to come. Sir Isaac Newton once said that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Ravi Coltrane is straining to see further.