City: Chicago Venue: Jazz Showcase Date: 2005-03-20
I fully planned on reviewing Ravi Coltrane's performance at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago without mentioning his father. A quick Internet search revealed that virtually every review of this 39-year-old's albums and concerts mentions his famous lineage, and many of them focus more on father than son. My plan was to avoid this common trap and write a cliché-free review that assessed Ravi on his own terms.
But as I took my seat in the front row just two feet from the small stage, I realized that my plan was scuttled. If you've been to the Jazz Showcase, a wonderfully cozy club just north of Chicago's Loop, you know that the walls are covered in large black-and-white photographs of famous jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Wes Montgomery. On one wall, next to the stage, there's a fantastic close-up of John Coltrane in action. He's playing the soprano sax (rather than his typical tenor) and, as usual, blowing with every bit of energy he has. His eyes are closed and bulging, looking as if they might explode from the force of some incredible inner tension. His cheeks are fully expanded with air, Dizzy Gillespie-style, and his entire head seems unnaturally large, as if he'd ingested some steroid.
John Coltrane was progressive, obsessed, innovative, and highly spiritual. How many American musicians can you rank ahead of him in terms of either artistic achievement or significance? It's a short list. He was a large man who cast a long shadow - over jazz, over American culture, and over his son.
When Ravi took the stage for his 8:30 show, he literally stood under his father's shadow. The father in the photo would have been roughly the same age as the son on stage, but the contrast was stark. John is large, bulky, and powerful: a commanding and intense stage presence in the larger-than-life black and white photograph. Ravi is much smaller, compact, and lithe. He projects a more comfortable and relaxed presence. He wears a bright, blue silk shirt and stylish black-framed glasses, looking more like Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center than John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard.
Ravi has an easygoing charm and chummy stage patter, two characteristics he did not inherit from his father. Perhaps these come from his mother, Alice Coltrane, who is an accomplished jazz musician in her own right. Regardless, Ravi is clearly the product of remarkable genes.
The father/son comparisons are only natural and Ravi -- perhaps to his credit and perhaps to his detriment -- does nothing to dispel this line of thought. He opens his set with his father's composition "26-2" (which appears as a bonus track on a reissue of John's 1960 album Coltrane's Sound). This highly rhythmic piece, with its odd tempo and numerous stops and starts, does not particularly flatter Ravi's skills.
It quickly becomes clear though, that Ravi has wisely strayed from his father's style. His approach is softer and less aggressive, reminiscent of Joe Henderson's more accessible work or Wayne Shorter's more cerebral compositions. Although he is a fine soprano player, on this night Ravi performs exclusively on the tenor.
His band -- Luis Perdomo on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and EJ Strickland on drums -- are given wide latitude and plenty of space to demonstrate their considerable talents. Gress, in particular, has a unique style that brings fresh life to his solos and makes it clear why major artists such as Dave Douglas have utilized him as a sideman. Ravi, ever the gentlemen, stands quietly off-stage as his bandmates trade lengthy solos -- several of which are unaccompanied by the typical background comping.
Over the course of a roughly 80-minute set, Ravi proves most adept at ballads and mid-tempo pieces that stick closely to the post-bop mainstream. We hear songs from both his new album, In Flux, and his back catalog. The general feel is one of workman-like professionalism without a great deal of passion or energy. It's a perfectly well-played and entertaining show, but nothing more.
Ravi Coltrane is a fine, highly competent saxophonist who has admirably handled both the benefits and drawbacks of his being the son of a legend. He seems fully comfortable in his own skin. Maybe too comfortable.