Ravi Coltrane: Digging Deeper

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Ravi Coltrane
By Michael Weintrob
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Ravi Coltrane
By Michael Weintrob

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Ravi Coltrane’s onstage at the Village Vanguard, fronting his own quartet in his first-ever appearance as a leader at this hallowed venue. It’s been more than 40 years since his legendary father played here, and now the son commands the same stage in that triangle-shaped subterranean room where so much jazz history was made.

“It’s almost like being in church,” he confided to WBGO’s Josh Jackson in a pre-set interview to accompany the gig’s National Public Radio broadcast. “A day doesn’t go by where we don’t see these people or hear their music,” he continues, pointing to an impressive photo gallery that includes an image of his father alongside portraits of Dizzy, Miles, Elvin Jones, Max Roach and other jazz immortals who have gigged at the Vanguard. “They’re an active part of our lives. They’ve been gone for decades in a mortal sense, but they’re as much a part of our lives as they could ever be. We live and breathe these musicians. Their image, their music, is always with us.”

He’s bobbing and weaving now with his tenor sax, digging into the fabric of the aggressive set opener with steely conviction, double-timing and blowing serpentine lines against a contrapuntal current supplied by bassist Drew Gress, drummer E.J. Strickland and pianist Luis Perdomo. On a rendition of his father’s “Harmonique,” a bluesy track from 1960’s Coltrane Jazz, Ravi delivers with bold tones and touches of tricky multiphonics on the jaunty head. He follows with “For Zoe,” a deeply meditative, droning dedication to poet-writer-jazz-critic Zoe Anglesey that carries some allusions to his father’s somber “Wise One.” Ravi wraps up his maiden voyage at the Village Vanguard in triumphant fashion with “First Circuit,” a playful “trading duets” vehicle from his superb new album (Blending Times, Savoy Jazz), and a rousing rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” that has him digging deep.

This is a newly confident, grounded Ravi Coltrane, who at age 43 is coming into his own as a thoughtful, deliberate composer, assured bandleader and potent improviser. And while the physical resemblance to his famous father remains striking, he clearly has forged his own path in a musical journey that began back in 1986, when he started studying jazz at the California Institute of the Arts with Charlie Haden.

A month after his successful Vanguard debut, Coltrane was at the Blue Note, holding his own as a special guest alongside McCoy Tyner’s quartet and tap-dancing sensation Savion Glover as part of the legendary pianist’s weeklong 70th birthday celebration. Sitting in the audience that night, it was hard not to reflect on the historic, magical connection between the great pianist and the late tenor titan, who died when Ravi was only 2. Again, the family name and physical resemblance between father and son compels us to dream.

We’ve watched Ravi grow up in public. Some in New York will recall his apprenticeships during the early ’90s with drummer Rashied Ali (his father’s last drummer), tenor saxophonist David Murray and trumpeter Wallace Roney. While still in the formative stage of his career, as a member of the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in the early 1990s, he seemed young, rather shy and sometimes visibly intimidated onstage following alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune in the band’s solo order. An important tenure with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements band during the mid- to late ’90s allowed Ravi to absorb Coleman’s language-based systems of musical organization, giving him an entirely different perspective on harmony and rhythm, one separate from a purely bebop sensibility or the modal music of his father.

In April 1998, Coltrane made his first splash as a leader with Moving Pictures for RCA. Produced by Coleman, who also played alto sax on the session, it included Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Michael Cain on piano and Ralph Alessi on trumpet. (Liner notes for that release were by renowned writer-poet Amiri Baraka.) It was an auspicious debut that garnered much acclaim for the 32-year-old saxophonist. Since that time, he’s been on a mission to find his own personal style and sound within the music.

Fatherhood came along at the end of 1999 with the birth of his first son, William, making Ravi fully aware that the Coltrane legacy was being extended to the next generation. The birth of his second son, Aaron, in April 2006 amplified that point and only helped to deepen Ravi’s musical expression. “Kids have a way of grounding you,” he acknowledges, before launching into a litany of his boys’ favorite things.

Ravi himself grew up in a household full of music. If it wasn’t his mother, Alice, playing organ, there were tons of records to absorb, including classics by both his parents. Since the mother-son bond ran so deep, it was especially rewarding when Ravi began collaborating in 2000 with his mother on a recording project that would ultimately be released in 2004 on Verve as Translinear Light. Along with drummers Jack DeJohnette and Jeff “Tain” Watts, bassists James Genus and Charlie Haden, his brother Oran Coltrane on one tune and the Sai Anantam Singers from Alice’s Vedantic Center Ashram in Agoura Hills, Calif., Ravi delved into a blend of his mother’s devotional music (“Jagadishwar,” “Sita Ram”), his father’s music (“Crescent,” “Leo”) and traditional folk tunes (“Walk With Me,” “This Train”) on this uplifting collection.

“My mom was kind of reluctant to do that record,” recalls Coltrane, “but I kept slowly, gently pushing her. That started back in 2000 and it was a process of baby-stepping toward something from that point on.”

Knowing the depth of his mother’s musical expression, he was also aware that she had made a choice years ago to step away from recording and performing in public to focus on her spiritual work at the ashram she opened in 1974. “She played music her entire life,” says Ravi. “She left the public performance of it, but the music never left her. So when I began pushing her to do these things, it was because I knew that she still had this great ability to achieve something musically that was potent and personal and uplifting.”

While on the road during the ’90s, Ravi continued to hear from people asking him about his mother and her possible return from self-imposed exile. “As many people would ask me about Alice Coltrane as would ask me about John Coltrane, maybe even more,” he says. “I think more people had opportunities to see her play in the ’70s, so they were naturally curious about whether or not she was ever going to return to the recording scene. And I used to tell her whenever we spoke, ‘Yeah, Mom, they were asking about you again.’”

Alice finally did emerge from retirement in June 1998 for a performance with Ravi’s quartet at New York’s Town Hall, as part of the Texaco Jazz Festival. They later appeared in concert together in November 2002 at Joe’s Pub in New York to commemorate the simultaneous release of Ashley Kahn’s book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album (Viking Press), and a special edition of that landmark Impulse! recording. “A lot of Verve people were there that night,” Coltrane recalls of that special engagement. “Most of them had never seen her perform live, of course. And a week later they called me and said, ‘Do you think your mom would want to do a record for us?’ So that’s how the ball started rolling with that recording. And things just kind of steamrolled from there.”

Mother and son followed the release of Translinear Light with a brief tour in the fall of 2006 that showed great promise. “We did four gigs that were all spaced out by a couple of months,” says Coltrane. “We played quartet gigs at UCLA and in Ann Arbor, which was like a homecoming for my ma [she was born in Detroit]. We also did a full orchestral performance with strings and horns and a choir at NJPAC [New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark]. And at the end of the year we played the Masonic Hall in San Francisco with the quartet [with Roy Haynes subbing for DeJohnette]. After that last gig in San Francisco I got really excited about going out and playing with my mom. I felt like we needed to get over the hump of those first four gigs, and with each gig she got a little more of her thing back … a little looser, a little more momentum. The first few gigs she was still feeling it out, but by that Masonic Hall gig I felt like, ‘Yeah! Now it’s time. She’s ready; we’re ready. Let’s really go out and make important, creative music, from her perspective.’ We already had gigs booked in 2007, and I remember also saying to my mom, ‘We should record this music.’”

Alice had actually already recorded some of this new music at her son Oran’s studio in California, though without the strings and horn arrangements that she had written for the triumphant NJPAC gig. As Ravi explains, “We had talked about possibly going back and re-recording those pieces. We couldn’t overdub string and horn arrangements onto the pieces she had already recorded because she changed the key of the piece for the string arrangements. So we were in the process of discussing what to do about that project when she died.

“In the last phone conversation that I had with her, when she was in the hospital, I asked, ‘When and where are we gonna record these strings? Are we gonna do it in New York? Are we gonna do it in Los Angeles? We could do it in February...’”

The release of that project, to be titled Sacred Language of Ascension, remains in limbo. “Basically, Oran didn’t want to change anything, I wanted to change a lot of things, and it was a big conflict,” says Ravi. “I had some issues with the recording technically. My ma was all about the energy and the feel of everything. I’m about that as well, but I also like that to be balanced with as strong a technical presentation as we can manage. So if things need to be fixed or there’s some work to be done, I say do it.” As of this writing, there was no resolution between the brothers.

Alice passed away on Jan. 12, 2007, of respiratory failure. She was 69.

Processing the loss of this most significant figure in his life has been a huge personal challenge for Ravi and his siblings, Oran and Michelle. “My mom was like our God,” he says with a laugh. “She was my only parent that I’ve known and my relationship with her did not change much from childhood to adulthood. Although she was at her ashram in California and I lived in New York, she was still a major guide for me in the choices that I would make, consciously and subconsciously. Anything that happens in your life, you call your mom, right? So I was always on the phone with her: ‘Hey, Ma, I just got nominated for a Grammy!’ or ‘Hey, Ma, I just played with so-and-so.’ I wouldn’t get on a plane without calling her.

“She was my main supporter and advocate,” he continues, “and when that’s removed, it’s disorienting and shocking in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Not just the fact that my mother, whom I love, is not there anymore, but that the whole system is kind of displaced because she was still so much an active part of my daily life. I lived 42 1/2 years with my mom and only a year and a half or so without her. So it’s been a little hard to try and kind of regain the equilibrium since she’s been gone. I feel like a fish out of water now, like I have to re-learn how to live.”

With the absence of Alice in his life, Ravi has been forced to re-examine his motivation for playing music. “I’m starting to ask myself, ‘What is it really about? Why am I doing this? What am I trying to achieve? What can I achieve? What should I be trying to strive for?’” he says. “Re-examination is a good thing to apply at any period to a creative person’s life, but when it’s informed by these types of traumatic events, we start finding more meaningful things to examine. And we connect with things that maybe weren’t as important to us before. I was never a nostalgic person so much before … and I don’t know if ‘nostalgia’ is the word I’m looking for. … But this sense of my past and how it’s influencing my present is very apparent to me now. It’s almost like every note that you play now is informed by something that happened before. And it’s not even a thought process. Every fiber of your being is responding to this traumatic event that happened in the past. Instinctively, intuitively, you’re just doing things differently because of it.”

He adds that for the majority of 2007 and a good part of 2008, “I was kind of in this strange zone … this blending of my past and my present. Now, moving forward, I’m processing and relating to my past in a different way than I was last year.”

Which brings us to Blending Times, his fifth recording as a leader and follow-up to 2005’s Grammy-nominated In Flux. The outing comes on the heels of 2008’s Seraphic Light (Telarc), the powerful 2008 Saxophone Summit release featuring Ravi with Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman. (In that trio, Ravi replaced the late Michael Brecker, who died on Jan. 13, 2007, the day after Alice passed.) Blending Times is Ravi’s most emotionally charged, fully realized statement to date.

From the lyrical, Keith Jarrett-esque opener “Shine” to the swirling polyrhythmic funk of “Narcined,” the delicate rubato pieces “A Still Life” and “Before With After,” the playful, M-BASE-ish romp “One Wheeler Will” and an energized take on Monk’s “Epistrophy,” Coltrane distinguishes himself as a first-rate player and conceptualist. But easily the most moving track on Blending Times is the beautiful but somber closer, “For Turiya,” a touching ode to Alice Coltrane written by Charlie Haden for their duet together on Haden’s 1976 Horizon album Closeness.

“Charlie was a huge follower and believer in Alice Coltrane and her music,” says Ravi. “He just always recognized that she was someone to sort of hold up in a special light.”

Ravi and Haden first performed “For Turiya” together at her Elevation Service at the ashram on Jan. 27, 2007, and then again at an Alice Coltrane Ascension Ceremony on May 17 at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. “This was around the same time that I was trying to finish Blending Times,” recalls Ravi, “and after playing it with Charlie at the St. John’s memorial I knew that I wanted to have it on this record. So I flew to California with Brandee Younger, the harpist who played at all of the tribute concerts that we did for my mother, and we recorded at Capitol Records in Hollywood. The last time I recorded at Capitol was with Charlie and my mother for Translinear Light. So I’m standing basically in the same spot that I was recording a few years earlier with my ma and Charlie and Jack. And now it’s Charlie and me and Brandee.”

Ravi kept a picture of his mother on a music stand throughout the session as they recorded “For Turiya.” “I didn’t have any music,” he recalls. “I just looked at this picture of her the whole time we were in the studio. I haven’t had a lot of experiences where I can musically connect with something that’s beyond music, but in that moment that we were recording that tune, it was like every note was about me and my mother, or me not having my mother anymore.”

During that session, Coltrane experienced a flood of emotions ranging from sadness and regret to joy and elation. “I’m not an overly sentimental person and I know that music has purposes and functions that we have to address, regardless of what’s personally happening in our lives,” he says, “but there are certain moments that require you to kind of give in … to kind of release and let certain things come in. And this track was one of those moments. I have a hard time listening to it now because I can hear how sad I am. I can’t put on any other piece of music where I can identify an emotion so clearly in what I’m playing. It’s so revealing.”

While Coltrane awaited the mid-January release of Blending Times, he was also preparing for an extensive 50-city tour with the Blue Note 7—an all-star ensemble with pianist and musical director Bill Charlap, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Peter Washington—in support of their January release, Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records.

Also, as of this writing, Coltrane remains hopeful that he would be invited to play at the inauguration for President-elect Barack Obama. “I played at Bill Clinton’s with Elvin,” he says. “But if I don’t play at Barack’s inauguration, I hope I get a chance to meet him and hang with him. I know he’s got some John Coltrane and Miles Davis on his iPod. So we’ll have to see if I get the call.”

Originally published in March 2009

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