Ravi Coltrane is now 47 years old. Over the past 15 years the saxophonist and composer has released six critically acclaimed albums as a leader and made innumerable recordings as a sideman, including his work with the collective supergroup Saxophone Summit. But still, for many jazz fans, the question remains: Why would a son of John Coltrane — one of the towering figures in jazz and, it could be argued, 20th-century music in general — choose to play his father’s instrument? Isn’t that just too much baggage to carry?
When I get Coltrane the younger on the telephone in Belgium, where he’s on a tour that will take him to Scullers on June 20, he laughs at my view from “the other side of the telescope.” He says. “I was never that conscious of a choice either way. I always loved saxophone players. It was just something that I wanted to do, that was fun to do.”
Ravi was the third child of John and Alice Coltrane, and his father died (of liver cancer, at 40) when he was not quite 2 years old. Growing up in Southern California in the ’70s, says Ravi, “I lived a sort of anonymous life. People who knew about jazz music knew about John Coltrane. But most people didn’t know about that music or those musicians. People didn’t look at me as being the son of a famous musician. It was only when I started studying at CalArts [the California Institute of the Arts] that people stopped calling me Ravi and suddenly I was John Coltrane’s son.”
“We all have to deal with the legacy of . . . Pops,” says Joe Lovano with a hearty laugh. Lovano is Coltrane’s bandmate in Saxophone Summit and the coproducer of his latest CD, “Spirit Fiction” (Blue Note). When I ask him about his first impressions on meeting Ravi in the late ’80s, he betrays a jazz fan’s awe. “Well, just meeting him was pretty fantastic!” He laughs again. At the same time, “he struck me as someone who was really passionate and serious and trying to figure out a lot of things — who he was, and who he is. You can’t tell someone else’s story, no matter who you are. And Ravi always struck me as someone who understood that.”
From his 1998 debut as a leader, “Moving Pictures” (RCA), Ravi had a decidedly different sound than his father. Instead of the engulfing, epic sprawl of John, Ravi was more understated, often working out complex contrapuntal dialogues with the trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Though no less exploratory or technically accomplished, he was the cool to his father’s hot. And yet, the emotional warmth and fire of invention were there.
The decision to play saxophone may have been casual, but his personal search for his own voice was not. Early on, Elvin Jones — the great drummer in the John Coltrane Quartet — asked Ravi to join his band. By that time, “I had already sidestepped lots of different scenarios,” says Ravi. “People only being interested in me because I was the son of John Coltrane, or wanting only to play that music, or inviting me to jam sessions and saying, ‘Hey, let’s play the whole “Love Supreme’’ suite.’ But I immediately let them know, ‘I got it. It’s cool. But I’d rather be like everybody else, pursuing a more focused, personal direction.’ It just made things easier for everyone involved.”
When Jones called him, it was another matter. “Not only did I feel that I wasn’t ready to play with him — I mean, this is Elvin Jones here, and I’m literally still in school — but I already knew how distracting the Coltrane part of it would be, and that it would ultimately undermine what I was trying to do as a musician — to improvise, and to connect with the music and get into the moment.” Fortunately, he says, “Elvin understood all that and really just wanted to provide an environment for me to do that.”
“Spirit Fiction” is a typically probing Ravi Coltrane set. There are experimental, spontaneous improvisations like “Roads Cross” and “Cross Roads” (on which he’s layered separate recordings of saxophone with piano and bass with drums), covers of challenging semi-obscurities like Ornette Coleman’s “Check Out Time” and Paul Motian’s “Fantasm,” and a mix of originals by Coltrane and Alessi. As usual, there’s wonderful contrapuntal dialogue between Coltrane and Alessi, and between Coltrane and Lovano, who guests on the Coleman and Motian pieces.
The album was recorded in two sessions separated by several months — the first with his longstanding band of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer E.J. Strickland, the latter with Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus, and drummer Eric Harland. Along with the leader’s focused intelligence, you hear the warmth and spontaneity of intimate connection that marks the best jazz performances. Says Lovano, “Ravi has really grown and developed into one of the major cats on the scene today.”
Looking back, Coltrane says, “Having a quartet for 10 years and being a bandleader with some incredible musicians, your game goes up because it has to. Their ears are so huge, and they’re hearing everything and you have to have your ears at that level. . . . It makes it much easier to move and shift, like a flock of birds doing their thing together.”
Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.