Tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane manages to look backward without seeming stale, and manages to deflect his sound off of his father's without either outright rejection or pale imitation.
It's tough being the son of a legend. Just ask Arlo Guthrie. Or, well, George W. Bush...sort of. You can spend your whole career looking to live up to something you had no part of -- or running away from a legacy you would like to deny.
In jazz, there have been few famous filial lines. Mercer Ellington worked under his father but never really emerged. Wynton and Branford Marsalis are the sons of Ellis Marsalis, but Ellis did not start as a legend. Renè McLean is a fine reed player and the son of post-bop titan Jackie. Chico Freeman, the son of Chicago great Von Freeman, was briefly ascendant in the 1980s. Vocalist Kim Parker was, well, the stepdaughter of Charlie Parker. The most imposing pair may be Dewey Redman and his son Joshua (featured in this column last month).
But then there is Ravi Coltrane.
The Toughest Legacy of Them All
John Coltrane is probably the most overpowering figure in the history of jazz. What other jazz musician inspired his own church? But son Ravi, born in 1965, is also the son of Coltrane's legendary wife, Alice, brilliant in her own right on piano and harp. And, to top it off, Ravi plays his father's instrument, the tenor saxophone. That is a heavy weight of expectation.
This imposing legacy may be the reason that Ravi jumped into jazz relatively late in life. He didn't seriously study the music until his early 20s, and he would not record as leader until 1998 at the age of 33. Before that, Ravi put in a fine apprenticeship with his father's drummer, Elvin Jones, and then with Steve Coleman's M-Base collective. From the very start, Ravi seemed to understand that being compared to his father was both inevitable and impossible. He seemed intent on finding his own sound, no matter how long it took, before exposing his individual vision.
It need no longer be stated that Ravi Coltrane is not a copy of his father. In fact, as a tenor saxophone player he seems distinctly -- maybe self-consciously -- not in the John Coltrane mode. Rather, he plays with the lyricism and control of Jan Garbarek or the softer and more buffed tone of Joe Lovano rather than the steely and aching sound that his father made so ubiquitous in jazz 50 years ago.
Even so, and despite good critical reaction to his first few outings as a leader, one could hardly have called Ravi Coltrane a vital jazz voice. Until now.
A New Voice Rising: Blending Times
With Blending Times, released on January 13th of this year, Ravi Coltrane has taken a huge step toward relevance and independence. Mostly a documentation of the work being done by his sparkling quartet, this disc suggests how old things can be new again ("Epistrophy") and how old ideas can be given new ways to thrive. Which is to say that this jazz offspring manages to look backward without seeming stale, and manages to deflect his sound off of his father's without either outright rejection or pale imitation.
The first really notable thing about Blending Times is that fully half of its tunes are credited as "Improvisations conceived and directed by Ravi Coltrane." This may seem a bit precious -- just as it is surely meant to echo the phrase "New Directions in Jazz by Miles Davis" from the late '60s Davis albums -- but it gives you a sense that Ravi is up to something big here. He is staking a claim for his independent artistic identity.
The tunes "conceived and directed" by the leader are unlike almost any jazz you have heard. They are not free improvisations in the manner of the first generation free players of the '60s or the AACM. Nor are they contemporary free playing in the manner of Peter Brötzmann or William Parker. Rather, they are outlines for improvisation that contain some clear limitations in tonality, rhythm, and form. What distinguishes them from regular jazz compositions is the lack of a horizontally composed melody -- a set, hummable tune that follows a set of chord changes from bar one to bar 12 or 32. Rather, these tunes have a vertical organization with a bassline, a groove for the drums, and a tonality for the piano and saxophone to interact in. Thus they don't proceed from beginning to end and then cycle around in repetition. The result is extremely accessible and melodic for a jazz that allows the players greater freedom in the length and expressiveness of their improvisation without creating the usual alienation in the uninitiated listener.
"Narcined", for example, allows bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland to play an appealing bottom-heavy funk that would seem very nearly as appropriate on a Grover Washington, Jr. album as on a recording by someone named "Coltrane". On top, the blowing is free of typical form but not merely aharmonic wailing. In this context, the funk groove is not a cheap gimmick, though -- just one of the many grooves available to a jazzman in 2009.
"First Circuit" is a brief but extremely clever tune built as a series of interlocking duets: sax with drums, sax with piano, piano with bass, bass with drums, and drums with saxophone again, going in a circle of free improvisation until the end when the whole quartet plays together in a kind baroque free playing. This group's freedom, however, is hardly harsh or difficult to listen to. Like most of the younger generation of jazz players, Ravi and his band don't seem to draw a bright line between playing inside the harmonies and playing freely. Therefore, their unscripted playing on "First Circuit" has a warm smile on its face that gives the impression of children playing a game with no rules rather than angry adults, railing against the jazz orthodoxy.
Innovation Within the Tradition
Not all of Blending Times uses this "vertical" approach, however. But even these more conventional tunes, you can hear Ravi both approaching and evading his legacy, using creative tactics at each turn.
The opening track, "Shine", composed by pianist Louis Perdomo, is strongly suggestive of the old Keith Jarrett Quartet -- with a rolling free feeling in the rhythm section supporting Ravi's genial melody. Gress plays a virtual duet with Perdomo on his solo, while Strickland colors on the cymbals and plays tom rolls somewhat in the style of Elvin Jones. What the first track has in common with the John Coltrane Quartet, however, is a generous use of free time and a sense that the rhythm section is less a swinging unit of propulsion for the soloist than a polyrhythmic conversation that allows everyone to be a drummer, everyone to be a melody player at same time.
The ace-in-the-hole for the group is probably Perdomo on piano. He voices his chords gently with the left and plays keening right-hand lines that seem to arc toward beauty whenever possible. Unlike the John Coltrane Quartet, which often seemed like a stew of titans, each trying to wrestle for control of a group that only Coltrane could dominate, this band feels balanced in a more classical sense, with each voice in its place: contrasting but not battling.
If you're looking for a clearer father-son connection, you might look to the free ballad, "A Still Life", where Ravi plays with a distinctive serenity over a loosely swinging Strickland on drums. The way Ravi lays chords on top each other during his improvisation is less evocative of this father than it is part of the common lineage that John Coltrane brought to tenor saxophone improvising. Moreover, "Still Life" highlights the general tone of this group, which is questing and lyrical in a way in which the classic Coltrane Quartet could often be. This is a band that swings, but not in the usual manner.
It's hard not to smile listening to Ravi's version of Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy". Of course, we've heard it a million times (including versions by Monk with Coltrane the Elder), and it's commonplace these days to take a Monk tune and give it some twist in the arrangement. Here, Ravi has transformed the familiar herky-jerky A section of the tune into a fast waltz or 6/8 feel with a strong pulse on one and four, then he reverts to a clean 4/4 swing on the bridge. He interprets the melody loosely and playfully, which just adds to the delight. It's great to be reminded again how timeless Monk's tunes will always be -- the way their distinctive melodies make them immediately recognizable and modern even decades later, and how they continue to inspire improvisations that leap into your ears like jackrabbits.
John and Alice Coltrane
Blending Times is dedicated to Ravi's mother, Alice, who died in January of 2007. The last track, "For Turiya", was written by Charlie Haden for Alice and was recorded at a separate session featuring Haden on bass and Brandee Younger on harp. (It was originally recorded in 1976, and was then recorded by Ravi along with his mother and Haden in 2004.) This brand new version is haunting and lovely, and makes clear why Blending Times is dedicated to Alice's continuing presence in her son's life. It is Alice Coltrane's meditative and lyrical spirit rather than the restless spirit of John Coltrane that dominates not only this track but the bulk of the new disc and of Ravi's jazz career.
Ravi Coltrane is no longer an upstart jazz player, although seeing his name on a recording still seems to spark a sense of wonder in most Coltrane-worshipping jazz fans. In fact, he is 43 years old, and with Blending Times both honors his ancestry and stakes a claim as one of the better jazz players for the new century.
A Final Item
There is one curious -- and maybe disturbing -- note that comes from looking at Ravi's latest release with some care. All of Blending Times was recorded in 2006 and 2007. One wonders why music as wonderful as this would spend such a long time sitting on the shelf finding its way to the ears of listening public.
There was a time when the latest jazz record by Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck or, actually, John Coltrane, couldn't get onto record store shelves fast enough. Today, of course, record stores barely exist and the market for new jazz recordings is limited to the dedicated few and the curious. At the same time, it seems that there have never been more mature ideas, brilliant players, and independent minds at work in this art form. One simply hopes that the economic climate in this country generally, as well as in the record industry, will not slow down the restless imaginations of players like Ravi Coltrane, Louis Perdomo, Drew Gress, and E.J. Strickland.