I’m sorry about the mess,” Ravi Coltrane says at the front door of his brownstone, on a picturesque residential street in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. It would be a routine disclaimer, except that the saxophonist really is apologizing: The night before, he and his wife, Kathleen Hennessy, threw a dinner party that didn’t end until five in the morning. So the front stoop is festooned with cigarette butts, and the kitchen is strewn with plates and pans. “It got a little intense,” chuckles Coltrane, estimating a total of some 60 guests. “There was one moment: I turned around and saw Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, standing next to Greg Hutchinson, standing next to Clarence Penn, standing next to Rodney Green. I was like, ‘What are all you drummers doing congregating together? Spread out a little bit!'”
Party aftermath aside, the Coltrane-Hennessy residence feels like a home. Five-year-old William skitters about in his pajamas, and a black cat named Leo naps contentedly on a chair. Bookshelves in the living and dining rooms are stocked with everything from Susan Sontag’s On Photography to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s Nobu: The Cookbook-nearly all Kathleen’s, Ravi sheepishly admits. Atop the TV cabinet is a profusion of family snapshots, including one of Coltrane’s parents, John and Alice. The only other visible allusion to Ravi’s illustrious father is a framed photograph of the Francis Wolff image used on the cover of Blue Train.
Ravi lost his father when he was two, so he was raised by his mother-first on Long Island, then in Los Angeles, where she still resides. Although the house was always full of music, he was a relative late bloomer-getting serious about the saxophone at age 20, and enrolling the following year at CalArts. He was in his early 30s by the time he released his first album, Moving Pictures, on RCA. He went on to record another album for the label, From the Round Box, and one for Sony’s Eighty-Eight’s imprint, Mad 6. Along the way he married Hennessy, whom he met in 1991 when she was managing Boston’s Regattabar, and they had William (a family name). He also founded his own label, RKM Music (rkmmusic.com)-a small operation he runs with the help of Hennessy and saxophonist Michael McGinnis, whose album Tangents was one of its first titles; its latest release is Focus Point by pianist Luis Perdomo, who now plays in the saxophonist’s working band.
The idea of a working band appeals strongly to Coltrane, which may account for how he feels about his own new album, In Flux (Savoy). “To finish a record and feel really good about it,” he says, “has never happened for me before. This one, for a change, I feel really good about from start to finish.” In Flux is the only record Coltrane has made documenting a true working band. (For Mad 6, he reconvened a band that had split up.) He chose to make it gradually, in a handful of short sessions over the course of several weeks, and this method had the effect of removing the unnatural pressures of recording. In Flux is a thoughtful and energetic album, and the quartet-Coltrane, Perdomo, drummer E.J. Strickland and bassist Drew Gress-plays with intensity and poise.
That combination of attributes would be a fine characterization of Coltrane, who is, after all, his parents’ son. His single biggest activity in 2004 was shepherding the release of Translinear Light (Verve), Alice Coltrane’s first commercial effort in 26 years. He mentions the prospect of another Verve project: the release of a 1965 John Coltrane radio broadcast from the Half Note, “some of the most incredible music that group ever made.” But nothing animates him more than talking about William, who apparently has quite the ear. “He’ll come to my gigs and sing along with the tunes. And I’ll say, ‘How do you know that? It’s a new song!’ He’s heard me working on it all this time.” JT
The Personal File
“We have a Nissan Pathfinder I bought in ’96. I moved to New York from California, where of course, everyone drives. It was always cool to not have a car here, but at one point I was like, ‘Maybe I would get out more.'”
“I’ve always used Macs,” Coltrane says, adding that he has worked with sequencers and sound editing programs since the ’90s. “I use this software called Nuendo; it’s by Steinberg, who made Cubase. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be using it. There’s a point where you sort of have to put your hands up and go with what everyone else is using-Pro Tools.”
“When I was young I worked at two movie theaters, just because I dug movies so much. But when I started really getting serious about music and playing, it just sort of drifted. Now I maybe see one movie a year, and I’m not proud of that.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of OutKast. Some Aretha Franklin, some Al Green, Stevie Wonder. And the iTunes Music Store is really great for reference.”
“I’m trying to focus right now on practicing not just for maintenance but also to develop stuff. If I can play for four or five hours a day, it’s a good day.”
“Uhhhhhh, no,” the saxophonist says, laughing. “The last vacation I was on was probably when we were in Cancun, in 1999 or 2000. Every year we reserve space on the calendar but something always comes up. And when you’re traveling so much, you get home and don’t want to think about traveling anymore.”