Ravi Coltrane has an unbelievable mantle to bear in his career as a jazz saxophonist, perhaps the weightiest possible. Miles Davis doesn’t have a son, at least not an acknowledged one in the jazz game, Joshua Redman’s father, Dewey, was nowhere near the star John Coltrane was, and players like T.S. Monk perhaps wisely steered clear of the instruments that brought their fathers success. So Coltrane is it.
On his first two CDs, Moving Pictures and From the Round Box, Coltrane sounded fine. He wasn’t trying to mimic his father’s “Sheets of Sound” approach, but instead offered competent, well-felt playing that more than justified his major label recording contract. Still, those records were nothing special, too well mannered really to spark much devotion in the hearts of listeners. A few moments here or there seemed to hint at a fire within, but nothing really to latch onto, nothing to pique the interest. Coltrane seemed to be settling into that place populated by so many younger jazz performers, ready to crank out disc after disc of tunes that sound roughly the same, playing the festival circuit each summer to pad the bottom line.
Seeing Coltrane perform live around the time of From the Round Box‘s release, then, was a revelation. The streak of improvisation and energy that was missing from those records was on display in abundance on stage. It wasn’t just the usual spark that a live performance can bring; it was something more, as if Coltrane had been shackled during those recording sessions. The band locked into a groove on stage, and Coltrane rode the crest of that wave through jaw-dropping solos that easily eclipsed the best his recorded output had to offer. Where the discs seemed to offer the kind of performance a musician might think is expected, the live show offered the kind of performance Coltrane felt, the marketplace be damned.
With Mad 6, Coltrane’s recordings have caught up with his live show. Credit the guiding hand of producer Yasohachi “88” Itoh. Itoh, a Japanese jazz producer, is curating a new subsidiary of Columbia Records, the aptly named Eighty-eights. Discs released on the imprint are recorded with an audiophile’s care, live with no overdubs. That certainly recreates the spontaneity of a live show, and that translates well to disc on these 10 tunes.
Coltrane recorded the disc with two different groups, each offering complementary support and creativity. The first features George Colligan on piano and Darryl Hall on bass; the second has James Genus on bass and Andy Milne on piano. Steve Hass plays drums throughout. The disc was recorded over two days at Avatar Studio in New York.
Coltrane plays tenor and soprano saxophone throughout, soloing mightily throughout a set of hard-swinging tunes that mixes originals and covers. He bravely takes on two of his father’s compositions, “26-2” and “Fifth House”, as well as Mingus’s “Self Portrait in Three Colors”, Monk’s “Ask Me Now”, and the chestnut “Round Midnight”. All are ably rendered, but more importantly, he makes then his own, the well-known songs fitting seamlessly among his own compositions.
Some of this swings like mad, particularly Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy”, a tune on which Coltrane’s soloing seems endlessly innovative as it bops along above the tireless rhythm section. He practically reinvents “Round Midnight”, while “Self Portrait in Three Colors” is given a subtly shaded reading that would make Mingus proud.
Coltrane sounds nothing like his father, so comparisons are in terms of mastery only. As such, while this is no Giant Steps or A Love Supreme, in its own way it is surely as polished and energetic as his father’s Soultrane or Lush Life.
Thanks to a jazz scene that limits performance to large outdoor festivals and occasional club gigs while limiting recording output to a disc every couple of years, Coltrane will never develop the way his father did. No one will, as a matter of fact. But he is moving in the right direction. If more people like Itoh could hook up with adventurous players like Coltrane, the talk about the so-called death of jazz could be laid to rest once and for all.
And for Coltrane, if he can join the verve and swing of Mad 6 with the creativity and expression afforded by an album of his own compositions, he’ll have accomplished what few in the world of mainstream jazz have done of late: adding a truly essential disc to the jazz canon.