Depending on how you think about it, Ravi Coltrane was either blessed with inspiration or burdened by expectations when he was named after three such imposing musicians: his parents John and Alice Coltrane and Ravi Shankar. The son handled it much better than most children of celebrities: The younger Coltrane has managed to slowly but surely build an impressive musical career without sounding very much like any of his famous namesakes-despite playing his father’s instruments, the tenor and soprano saxophones.
Ravi Coltrane risks those comparisons again by sharing his new album, Spirit Fiction, with co-producer Joe Lovano, an acknowledged John Coltrane heir who plays tenor sax duets with Ravi on two tracks. The legend-saddled son can afford these risks, because he has developed such a distinctive voice on his horn that there’s no danger of confusing him with his dad, Lovano, Dewey Redman or anyone else.
When Coltrane and Lovano lock horns on Ornette Coleman’s “Check Out Time,” Lovano’s full, fluid, buttery tone is easy to pick out. But so is Coltrane’s more tightly focused blues sound. What’s remarkable about his tenor voice is the way his slightly raspy, slightly nasal inflections add an edge to his phrases, while his relaxed phrasing and melodic invention disarm the listener, allowing the knife-edge phrasing to slip in easily. It’s a wonderful paradox of a sound-abrasive and pleasurable at once.
On the album’s title track, for example, E.J. Strickland’s jittery cowbell figure and Luis Perdomo’s contemplative piano chords anticipate the two aspects of the leader’s sound. Coltrane enters after half a minute with a patient, breathy tenor line that suggests a tuneful slow hymn marked by troubled yearning. For Coltrane, it’s not enough for a melody to be pretty; it has to be knotted by dramatic conflict.
Something similar happens in the ballad “the change, my girl,” where the melody (which echoes Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”) is articulated first by Perdomo and only later picked up by Coltrane. There’s a sultry romanticism in the tenor solo but also a strain of melancholy, as if the romance hasn’t quite gone as expected. The mood is so infectious that even bassist Drew Gress reflects it in a solo based on the melody rather than the changes. Coltrane’s second solo quickens into eighth notes and a higher register, as if encouraged by his lover into optimism, only to have the third solo subside into the same bittersweet musings. His R&B influences are explored further on “Marilyn & Tammy,” Coltrane’s soprano tribute to his aunt, Motown songwriter Marilyn McLeod and her daughter Tamra Ellison.
With the exception of “Check Out Time,” the tracks described above and three more were recorded over the winter of 2010-2011 with Coltrane’s former road quartet. The album’s other five tracks were recorded the following winter with a combo featuring pianist Geri Allen, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist James Genus, drummer Eric Harland and sometimes Lovano. You can hear the difference between the two sessions, because each group tackles the same tune-called “Roads Cross” with the Perdomo band and “Cross Roads” with the Allen group. Both are soprano sax improvisations that begin as minimalist abstractions that become denser and more concrete over the course of four or five minutes. The first version starts out sparser and resists definition longer, allowing a longer, steeper build, while Coltrane and Allen lock into a darting give-and-take from the beginning of the second version.
Coltrane’s longtime collaborator Alessi contributed three compositions to the project, all of them ingenious settings for tenor/trumpet interaction. “Who Wants Ice Cream,” for example, begins with a minute of unaccompanied, counterpointed tenor and trumpet before the head is even articulated with the rhythm section. The two horns then trade eight-bar solos, each featuring a rising-then-falling pattern, before another counterpoint duet. This kind of thoughtful arrangement is so much more interesting than the usual parade of solo turns.
The two Lovano appearances summon the ghost of Dewey Redman, who played tenor on the first version of “Check Out Time” (on Coleman’s 1968 Love Call) and the first version of Paul Motian’s “Fantasm” (on Keith Jarrett’s 1977 Byablue). The latter tune, performed without drums or bass by the trio of Coltrane, Lovano and Allen, lives up to its otherworldly title with a reverb-heavy, breathy tenor duet that seems to rise from damp graves like early-morning mist. For someone who has so often been haunted by the past, Coltrane sounds unafraid to raise old spirits and affectionately dispel them.