The literary critic Harold Bloom once argued, in a galvanizing text called The Anxiety of Influence, that great poets achieve their greatness only after deliberately distorting their forbears' contributions. So a true artist takes canonical works and disfigures them, through a process of "creative misprision." In jazz, think of Charlie Parker digesting Lester Young-or John Coltrane wrestling with the long shadow of Parker. Or, unavoidably, think of Ravi Coltrane, who at 37 years old continues to contend with the formidable legacy of a father he hardly knew.
The elder Coltrane passed away just before the younger turned two; Ravi came to Trane as most of us did, through records. Perhaps partially as a result, the tenor and soprano saxophonist owes an equal debt to other muses, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter chief among them. And like the best of his contemporaries, Coltrane has subjected his influences to new interpretations. Moving Pictures, his 1998 RCA Victor debut, included a 7/8 funk translation of Henderson's "Inner Urge." His next RCA album, 2000's From the Round Box, featured a take on Shorter's "Blues a la Carte." Now comes Mad 6, with Coltrane's highest ratio of standards to originals, and his most purposeful misappropriations yet.
Mad 6 opens with "26-2," which was first recorded by John Coltrane in 1959; significantly, it's an alteration of Parker's "Confirmation." Here the song is still further transformed: Ravi begins by briefly citing one of his own compositions ("Mixed Media," from Moving Pictures), then launches into a recasting of his father's theme in slippery 9/8 time. By itself, this might seem less like a statement than a coincidence. But Mad 6 closes with John Coltrane, too: The album's final track is a version of his mysterious "Fifth House," conveying a Latin flavor. And in between these bookends, there's the Trane-evoking "'Round Midnight," rendered on soprano saxophone over an Afro-Cuban songo groove.
Could these be the "creative misprisions" of a pupil transcending his patriarch?
Perhaps. But to characterize Coltrane's latest effort as a grasp for identity would be shortsighted at best.
On a much more basic level, this is a taut and satisfying outing in the progressive-mainstream vein. Coltrane's ensemble delivers one forward-thrusting performance after another, propelled by the polyrhythmic drumming of Steve Hass and enriched by the chemistry of two sharp rhythm section pairs: pianist Andy Milne with bassist James Genus, and pianist George Colligan with bassist Darryl Hall.
Coltrane has the appealingly Hendersonian tendency to lay back even when he's driving hard and evinces a characteristic aversion to cliche. His rapport with both bands is deep and unforced; interestingly, Colligan seems to provoke an edgier dynamic, while Milne inspires more nuance. Altogether these musicians-most likely the "mad six" referenced by the title-interact with the jazz canon in complex fashion. They may transform Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy" into a head-wagging funk confection, but they also offer straightforward, tender versions of Charles Mingus' "Self Portrait in Three Colors" and Monk's "Ask Me Now." And Coltrane's few originals, particularly the haunting jazz waltz "Avignon," fleetingly attest to his own economical, ecumenical aesthetic.
If this album is indeed a transitional statement, it'll be rewarding to see where Coltrane takes us next.