He bears the name of jazz royalty, and he's spent many hours curating, archiving and producing his parents' recordings. But when he picks up his own saxophones, Ravi Coltrane blows an original and distinctly modern strain of jazz, distilling but never seeking to imitate his family's adventurous improvising spirits. Now one of today's top saxophonists, Coltrane took his own quartet into the same Manhattan venue where his father John Coltrane so famously held court: The Village Vanguard. Hear the Ravi Coltrane quartet perform live, in a concert broadcast live on air by WBGO and live online here at NPR Music.
Before this week, it had been more than 40 years since a saxophonist named Coltrane had headlined the Vanguard. With photos of John Coltrane on the walls, it was hard for intent listeners not to notice the family history, especially when Ravi Coltrane brought his tenor saxophone to near-screaming peaks of intensity, or to arpeggiated cascades in his father's "Giant Steps."
But Ravi Coltrane is clearly of his own progressive bent regarding tone, concept and direction. His compositions experiment with shifting textures and intricate forms, often arranged in a way as to appear almost unstructured, but never overbearing or harsh. One piece, his mother's "Jagdishwar," teased out a welcome wash of beautiful melody. Coltrane's soloing tended toward round shapes and probing explorations rather than the battering, "heavyweight" bravura associated with his father.
In developing his own style, he's been abetted since 2003 by a fantastic working group: Venezuelan modernist Luis Perdomo on piano, jack-of-all-trades Drew Gress on bass, and bright young drummer E.J. Strickland. That band's latest record at the time of this concert, 2005's In Flux, was well-received, and almost universally described as the first document of Ravi Coltrane's mature personal concept. A new album called Blending Times, with a guest appearance from bassist Charlie Haden, is set to be released in early 2009.
Ravi Coltrane hardly knew John Coltrane, who died before his son was 2 years old. He got to know his father's musical legacy in the same way most jazz musicians of his age did: through recordings, primarily. It was only when he decided to take his own musical career seriously that a teenaged Ravi Coltrane begin to listen intently to his father's music. The younger Coltrane has since surfaced several previously unreleased recordings of John Coltrane, and contributed liner notes to other reissued albums. He's also worked closely with his late mother, the pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, in producing and playing on Translinear Light, her lauded comeback album after a 26-year musical retirement.
After making a name for himself as a versatile sideman — most notably with fellow saxophonist Steve Coleman — Ravi Coltrane has created three albums under his own name since 1997. In addition to performing with his quartet, Coltrane will join the Blue Note 7, an all-star ensemble created to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, on a four-month tour of the U.S. in early 2009.