Sunday, June 19, 2005


Coltrane on Father's Day

Yesterday I wandered into my local CD store and discovered that they were having a big sale: Buy one used CD and get another free. I walked out with four albums for about twelve bucks, including Joe Henderson's tribute to Billy Strayhorn and the new album by the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, In Flux, the latter of which I'm listening to now.

The album is really good so far, and one of the reasons is the interplay between Ravi and EJ Strickland, a drummer in the Elvin Jones mold who mixes rock back-beats with a constant blur of percussion that drives the action of the group forward. The compositions, mostly by Ravi but some by other group members, are also exceptional. "Away," by bassist Drew Gress is a beautiful ballad, and "Leaving Avingnon," by Ravi, has an interesting form. The rhythm section carries the melody while the soloist keeps the beat, speeding the song up and slowing it down again at the end. The song concludes with a piano and bass duet that finally foregrounds the underlying melody.

I've only given the album two complete listens, but it has a consistency that I have had trouble hearing in work by some of Ravi's more heralded contemporaries like Joshua Redman. I like Redman, but on some of his most recent albums, like Elastic, I feel like his creativity with studio tricks becomes distracting. There's a stark contrast between some of the songs on Elastic and the sixth track on In Flux, "Blending Times." It wasn't until my third listen to this track that I even noticed that three horn parts had been overdubbed, and whereas I think Redman, who has a penchant for soul jazz, would have extended the song, Ravi ends the tune right at the three-minute mark, just after the third overdub has been added. The brevity of the tune is what makes the overdubbing subtle, so that it's possible to be pleasantly surprised on subsequent listens. Similarly, the short "Variations I" opens with a chain of staccato blasts on the soprano sax, which seem intended to savor, through a pronounced reverb effect, the acoustic space of the studio.

Ravi Coltrane is--of course, need it be said, don't you forget it--the son of John and Alice Coltrane. That's the statement that jazz writers always seem to make about Ravi, even when they're not making it. Every review I've ever read of the man's music either makes inevitable comparisons to his father's sound or makes a point of not making comparisons by talking about how Ravi is a wonderful musician "in his own right" who is "finding his own path" and crafting a "distinctive" sound that lives up to "expectations." These kinds of locutions are so pervasive that you begin to wonder which is the supposed albatross: his father's influence, or the cliched questions about his father's influence. In this recent interview on NPR, Ravi actually had to deal with a question about the questions about his father.

The thing is, I understand the impulse of the interviewers and the reviewers, and I gather from Ravi's good humor in dealing with the questions that he understands too. When a man casts a shadow over twentieth-century music as long as John Coltrane's, it's to be expected that those considered closest to him will find it harder to run out from under that shadow. Besides, in jazz, everyone is always under everyone's shadow: it's a music constantly in conversation with its past. Conceivably, a reviewer could ask every single tenor saxophonist since 1960, "So, what's it like to be John Coltrane's son?", and to the ear of a jazz lover, the question would not ring false.

The other thing is, that question is also about as appropriate in Ravi's case as it would be in the case of any other saxophonist, since John Coltrane died when Ravi was only two years old. To the extent that John Coltrane has influenced Ravi Coltrane, it is only because Ravi, like any tenor saxophonist, has listened to Trane's classic records again and again.

That's why I think the fascination with the John-Ravi connection has more to do with a lingering sense of loss among jazz fans about the fact that Coltrane died so young, rather than from a real sense that there is some direct line of descent from the father to the son. I know that's the case with me: a young jazz fan who came to the music in the CD age, discovering Coltrane for the first time long after he had played for the last time. And once you've been struck by that music, you can't help but wonder what it must have been like to be there, to see Trane swaying on the bandstand, with Elvin Jones' face dripping with sweat and McCoy Tyner coming up off the piano bench everytime his basketball-player hands crashed down on a chord.

It was around this time last year that I got to see Ravi Coltrane live, playing with the band that recorded this album, at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village. I got there early; the band was having a drink and casually organizing the set list as if they had just rolled out of bed. I sat at the end of the bar, where my knees virtually touched the piano. The bartender was polling those of us at the bar by asking "What is America?" (I'm not making this up.) Just before the set started, Ravi came up to the bar right next to me and leaned over to order something. Right next to me was a huge jar of sangria, and I remember Ravi casually joking with me by wrapping his arms around the jar as if he were taking the whole thing.

I laughed. But I also remember looking, in spite of myself, at his hands, wondering if that was what his hands had looked like. One reason John Coltrane's music is so powerful is that it forces you to imagine his hands flying across the fingerboard of his saxophone; it draws attention to every curve of the instrument, just as surely as a Jackson Pollock painting makes you picture the bucket of paint in the artist's hands. Were these hands like those, I wondered? I was embarrassed to think it, but what could I do? It wasn't that I was judging Ravi's music by his father's; it was just that I wondered what it was like to be around John Coltrane, to shake his hand and hear him talk. And if there's anything tragic about the constant questions about Coltrane that Ravi has to field, it's probably that Ravi wonders the exact same thing, more powerfully than fans ever could.

Collective Improvisation:
I wonder if Neneh Cherry has the same problem.. 

Posted by dacoit

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/23/2005 04:59:00 PM : Permalink  

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