Michelle Coltrane: What’s in a Name?

The singer opens up about her recent album, her surprising birth father and the joys of jazz’s weightiest legacy

Michelle Coltrane (photo by Marsha Randolph)

She has been singing since childhood and shares one of the most illustrious names in jazz. But, putting family commitments first, Michelle Coltrane, daughter of Alice and stepdaughter of John (who died when she was 6), waited until her mid-30s to record her debut album, I Think of You. It has taken almost a quarter-century for Coltrane, now 57, to shape her sophomore release, Awakening (Blujazz), a fine collection of covers and originals that honors the Coltrane legacy while remaining true to her own musical vision. – Christopher Loudon

JAZZTIMES: YOUR JAZZ LINEAGE ACTUALLY GOES DEEPER THAN THE COLTRANES. YOUR BIRTH FATHER WAS VOCALIST KENNY HAGOOD.

MICHELLE COLTRANE: Absolutely. I really didn’t know him or have a chance to make a bond with him. When I was 15 or 16, Alice told me I had another father. I didn’t know what to do with that. Should I be happy or sad? Turned out he was a singer, and he was one of the few Miles recorded with; he sang “Darn That Dream” [from the live Birth of the Cool sessions, in 1948].

A FAMOUS NAME CAN OPEN DOORS, BUT IT CAN ALSO SET UP UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS—A BLESSING AND A CURSE.

I’ve heard that before and possibly used it myself when I was younger. But now I say it’s a blessing and a blessing. To be the baby in the room, or in the studio … to look back at that and be so grateful for that opportunity. John left us really young, and I have only little glimpses of him. But I remember being [with him] with music all around. And I got to grow up with Alice and travel with her. She taught me life lessons not only as a mother but as a person working in the spiritual ilk; [I grew up] with someone who didn’t compromise her principles, no matter what.

LIKE ANOTHER SECOND-GENERATION VOCALIST, NATALIE COLE, YOUR SOUND HAS STRONG UNDERCURRENTS OF POP AND SOUL.

I did a lot of soul searching, and as much as I would love to be the John Coltrane of vocals, and not to disappoint people, but you’re a product of your environment and you love what you love. I love the [America] song “Tin Man” [covered on Awakening]. I needed to pick something that was relevant in my lifetime. I love lots of songs written in the 1920s, but I wanted to pick a few songs where I was here when they were here, including Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

YOU NOD TWICE TO JOHN, WITH “MY FAVORITE THINGS” AND
“MOMENT’S NOTICE.”

When we would have family music festivals, Alice wanted everyone to participate. My younger brother Oranyan played alto at the time, Ravi played tenor and I’d sing. And if I only had one number in the show it would be “My Favorite Things.” We weren’t going to do it, and then I talked to [arranger/multi-instrumentalist] Gerry Gibbs, and we met in New York with [co-arranger/keyboardist] Alex Collins and came up with an arrangement that we thought was a good one.

I wrote the lyrics for “Moment’s Notice.” We’ve had a lot of requests through the years for every Coltrane song that was [popular], and people have sent in their versions of [lyrics for his compositions]; it became a rule that we didn’t do them. I wanted to humbly do a good job, and I thought I should learn the solo and scat it. I like the way it turned out.

RAVI MAKES GUEST APPEARANCES ON TWO TRACKS.

He’s younger than me but more experienced. I respect him so much as a musician and was honored that he would [participate]. But I had to catch him; it was like, “Yeah, yeah. Send me the tracks.” But then he was in L.A. and I booked that studio! He didn’t have any airs. He was totally cool and I was totally happy. He took direction well!

YOU WROTE OR COWROTE FIVE OF THE ALBUM’S 11 SELECTIONS.

I feel that songwriting is the strongest part of myself. I feel confident with it and have for a long time. I love [creating] stories. I have more songs in the queue for the next album.

THE CLOSING TRACK, “OUT OF THE SHADOWS,” OPENS WITH A PRAYER READ BY ALICE.

I thought maybe I’d write something for one of Alice’s pieces. Then I thought I’d use this prayer that she taught us that was always sung at the end of Sunday services. It says, “Lead us from the darkness to the light.” It isn’t about me in the shadows of the Coltrane name; it’s about getting out of my own way, an expression of self-awareness and finding the right path.

Listen to Awakening by Michelle Coltrane on Spotify: