TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Forty-seven year old saxophonist Ravi Coltrane's parents were musicians. His mother was pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane. But Ravi didn't seriously turn to music till he was in his early 20s in the mid-1980s. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Coltrane's late start may have worked out to his advantage. He understood the attractions and pitfalls of following in the footsteps of his father, John Coltrane.
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KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ravi Coltrane didn't make his burden any lighter, choosing to play tenor and soprano saxophones - same instruments dad John Coltrane indelibly stamped with his influence. Ravi knew early he needed his own voice. On tenor, he has his own ways of bending and inflecting a note, applying flexible vibrato. Even when his noble sound bears witness to his heritage, Ravi Coltrane can draw on his father's language and make it his own. This is from Ravi's "The Change, My Girl."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHANGE, MY GIRL")
WHITEHEAD: On tenor or liquid-mercury soprano sax, Ravi Coltrane is no nostalgist. He's a musician of his own era, like his longtime bandmates, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and E.J. Strickland, crisp contemporary drummer who goes easy on the ride cymbal, to get a drier sound. Even when the music's agitated, the players leave room for the listener to breathe. You can hear as much on "Cross Roads." This isn't your father's soprano sax feature.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROSS ROADS")
WHITEHEAD: "Cross Roads" by Ravi Coltrane's quartet from his new album, "Spirit Fiction" on Blue Note. For a few tracks here, Coltrane reconvenes an older quintet, including trumpeter Ralph Alessi. On Alessi's tune "Yellow Cat," the horns play straight through Geri Allen's two-minute piano solo, an oddball move. You'd think they'd be in her way, but the background horns help you hear how Allen weaves through and around the harmonies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YELLOW CAT")
WHITEHEAD: Ravi Coltrane tweaks the two band lineups on his new album, to allow for one-off combinations from duo to sextet, without losing his focus. He also works in a couple of guest shots by producer and likeminded tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, on tunes by Paul Motian and Ornette Coleman.
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WHITEHEAD: For all the musical chairs, there's a depth and seasoned quality to Ravi Coltrane's "Spirit Fiction" that befits an artist approaching 50. But he doesn't like things too settled, which is why he's now put his working quartet on hiatus; they know each other's moves too well.
Looking to subvert that easy interplay, for "Spirit Fiction's" title track the quartet's members were recorded two at a time. Then those improvised duos were artfully superimposed to reconstitute the band. Its success says a lot about these players' mutual understanding: They're in sync even when they can't hear each other.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Spirit Fiction," the new album by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane on the Blue Note label.
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