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Ravi Coltrane: His Own Man, His Own Thing

By Published: October 8, 2003
OK. We all know Ravi Coltrane is the son of legendary musician John Coltrane, who was not only a saxophonist for the ages but one of the most brilliant and influential musicians ever. He's Coltrane influenced, but name one saxophonist in the last 20 years—no, 30 years—who isn't.

Now let it go. Ravi Coltrane, who recently released his latest CD, Mad 6 is another working jazz musician. An extremely talented one, working hard, trying to support his family and create genuine, meaningful art. Give the new recording a listen and you can see he's on the right road. The band sizzles and his playing is as worthy as anyone on the scene out there today.

The unassuming Coltrane could have gotten major-league fucked up over being the son of a legend, in the same business and playing the same axe. His mother, keyboardist Alice Coltrane, is also a formidable figure in the music. So it's in the genes, yes. But this 37-year-old has his head firmly screwed on his talented shoulders. And make no mistake, the influence of John Coltrane, both as father and musician, is profound and not lost on Ravi. His respect and admiration as a son and sax man is evident in his eloquently expressed thoughts. In fact, it was an investigation of Trane's music that led Ravi into his life as a professional musician. The relationship with his father, that world, is something no one else can touch, not even the other acolytes of John.

Ravi understands, and handles with incredible composure people's fascination with the 'son of Coltrane" thing. "If I saw the son of Miles Davis with a trumpet, I would have some of the same things going through my head. But it's all about what the person is trying to communicate, what I'm trying to communicate, and I just have to let people know that," he said to the point.

Erin Davis, the only musician offspring of the Black Prince, plays drums.

Another John Coltrane—his brother, John Jr., an alto player—also had a big impact on Ravi's life and after his death in an automobile accident in 1982, Ravi gave up music—he'd been playing clarinet for about five years—and spent the next four years "just trying to adjust and come back to center," he said.

He got through that ordeal. And this Coltrane is moving ahead, tending to business, which not only includes the new recording, but the formation of a new band (not the one on Mad 6 ) and the running of a small record company, RKM Music. Ravi Coltrane is his own man, creating his own art and trying to cope with an unfriendly music environment—like everyone else. Married, with a three-year-old son he idolizes, he is busy trying to balance the challenges of business and every day life—just like the rest of us.

"I have to constantly remind myself not to take my foot off the gas. With the economy and the world, George Bush and company. There's not a lot of hip stuff going on in the world, from my eyes. You have to stand a little bit and rise above the shit. There's not a lot of real positive things in the world. You've got your kid and you're wondering what his life might be like. It can get you down," he said, not with concern, but awareness. "War's going on, the economy sucks, people are losing their gigs. The Internet. No one's buying records anymore. Jazz has always been a hard sell. There's a lot of things to fight. The music itself. What are we going to do" Are you going to play this kind of music, or this kind of thing" Are you going to play Lincoln Center or the Knitting Factory" There's a lot of things to acknowledge and manage for a musician today."

Coltrane, based in New York City, seems to be managing. RKM, a label predicated on giving the artist as much freedom as possible, has three recordings out, Tangents by saxophonist Michael McGinnis, and two from trumpeter Ralph Alessi, Vice and Virtue and This Against That. An disc from pianist Luis Perdomo will come out in the fall, and the company ahs a distribution agreement with City Hall Records out of San Rafael, CA. Coltrane's business partners include his wife, Kathleen Hennessy, and McGinnis.

Mad 6, not on RKM, cooks from start to end. It's a collection of some standards and compositions by Ravi. It's done by Coltrane's former working band, since broken up, and is an example of what people would have heard had they caught them on tour, including different arrangements of standards, like the funky and hip version of "Round Midnight" that features some hot alto playing from the leader. Ravi's talents as a composer are evident, though he says, "I'm not a natural writer. It's something that I have to hammer away at for hours and weeks and months. I get in ruts where I can't write at all. I have about a thousand fragments that need to be completed and stuff like that."

His compositions, the intricate "Avignon," the herky-jerky 'the Mad 6" and the driving "Between the Lines" are all quality and fit in with the other tunes, by John Coltrane, Monk, Mingus. The band is tight, driven by the outstanding propulsive work of drummer Steve Hass, a polyrhythmic trapster influenced by" dare we say it" Elvin Jones.

The group "was the band I had until late 2001 early 2002, I started working less with that group and I was trying to put another band together. And then the opportunity to do the recording came up, and I told them I had two ideas for a project. I told them I had an older band that broke up that plays a lot of standard tunes and that kind of thing, and I'm trying to start a new band to focus on original material and stuff like that. So given the choice, the record company was more interested in recording the band that was playing the standards," said Coltrane, adding tongue-in-cheek 'strangely enough.

"But the benefit was that the band had broken up, but we had never really recorded that group, so that's how it came about. It was basically tunes we were doing on gigs. I was playing my music that had been recorded already for my first couple records, and we were playing standard tunes. I definitely get tired of my own tunes, so we"d play a bunch of my stuff all night and then we"d end the gig by playing "Giant Steps" or something that's fun and we all like to play. So we eventually started these kind of bizarre arrangements and spontaneous arrangements that would stick. The record is really about that. The idea was to have kind of a live-gig-in-the-studio type of record."

Yes, there are John Coltrane tunes on it—"26-2" and "Fifth House"—but it isn't a cosmic connection.

"People were saying, "Wow, you finally recorded some of you father's music. What does it mean" Is it a statement" Of course not, it was music we were playing on gigs. I was hoping it would be obvious. The band did three or four tours in Europe, we played in New York a shitload of times; played in LA a bunch of times. That's the repertoire. A little bit of my music and a bunch of weird standards."

The record is first-rate, but the problem then becomes getting it out to the public. Coltrane said the recording industry is in a state of upheaval and it's one of the reasons RKM was formed.

'the industry is kind of falling apart. It's the time for [RKM] now. Every musician alive on every level at every age has their own record out. I don't know how good a thing that is. There's just tons of product everywhere all the time. But there are people who are serious enough and have been going about it for a long time and they have an audience. Hopefully, people will search out their music, regardless if it's being put out by a label that they know is a major or a musician's own label. That won't be such a factor, I think. Hopefully the music will be out there for people to find."

The goal of RKM, he explained—after quipping "rake it in" and after his chuckling subsided—"is to really let guys do what they want to do. Let the music be first. It's not a money-making thing or status-making thing. It's set up just to kind of put music out there. Not my own, per sae, not at this point. It just seems like a natural kind of thing at this point. If you have the ability to do it, it's something that's kind of needed at this point—to put some music out there."

The music on the RKM releases has the air of musicians that are playing without men in suits looking over their shoulders. It's free and devoid of industry hooks, or, as Coltrane called it, the 'the corporate filters applied to recording projects."

When recording for major labels, Coltrane said, 'sometimes the result you end up with is not really what the artist is seeing 100 percent. Not to say that people in the industry don't know what they"re talking about, or producers only get in the way, but most 75 percent of the time that's just the case."

At RKM, "it's produced by the people who play it, the people who write it and the people who perform it. That's really what it's about. If they"re at a place in their lives as musicians, they don't really need the guidance of someone saying, "Wouldn't it be better if you played it this way," or "wouldn't it be better if you did it this way." I think if you do something for 20 years, you know what you're trying to communicate and what you're trying to put out to an audience. It's not to say that these records get made and there's no creative input from all sides. Obviously, I throw my two cents in, the artists throw their two cents in, the musicians throw their two cents in. And my wife and Mike McGinnis. There's definitely people trying to shape the thing, but I think it has it's own soft propulsion."

All this is happening at a time when recording industry is facing tough times, because sales have dipped in all genres. The Internet, and people's ability to download music for free, is being attributed as one of the key factors. But there are forces in the general area of creative music—a currently down cycle—that are also at work, making it particularly hard for jazz musicians. Coltrane is keenly aware of this.

'there are definitely cycles that have affected different areas of the music. The music itself: what trend is popular for musicians to play" And obviously the industry: Is there interest in jazz that decade" So those trends are always moving along. And now we have the Internet and the whole breakdown of the system. So it's a lot of stuff coming into play and it's hard to say what the end result is going to be. I believe that the majors [recording labels] are just going to have to change, accept the Internet and really change. They can't fight it. They"re gong out and arresting college kids now. I don't really think that's a great way to make amends with these people who stopped buying records. It's not going to do the job.

"You can buy Kind of Blue for $9—so if you want to buy my record, it's going to cost you $18.99, that's kind of ridiculous. For someone at a record company to think that makes any kind of sense today, he's out of his mind. you're not going to do it that way. And they know it. People aren't buying records at all. You need to give them a little bit of incentive by not charging so much. I think we"re past that. They"re kind of clinging on to whatever they can get. If they can sell a record at $18.99, even if they can only sell 1,000 records at $18.99, they"ll do it, as opposed to maybe selling 4,000 or 5,000 at $12.99," he said.

So struggles will continue in the music business, but Coltrane is staying busy in the profession he chose later than a lot of his peers and his elders. It wasn't until age 18 or 19 that Coltrane decided he wanted to try and pursue music. And even then, there were doubts.

Even though he is the son of two jazz musicians, Ravi never knew his father, who died at the age of 40 from a liver ailment. Ravi was only 2. He grew up listening to the sounds of the 1970s and 80s music: James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire. Even his first brush with Charlie Parker was off a Chaka Khan record where they had sampled an alto solo.

'that was the first time I heard Charlie Parker, which is definitely a bizarre place to hear it. But it freaked me out. That one little break. I played it over and over. It sounded so wild. I did start to listen to a little bit of those recordings. My mother had gotten a really nice box set of Dial and Savoy sessions, LPs. I was listening to a lot of that and really liking it. I felt fond of different types of music. I was into film scores, John Williams film scores, the New World Symphony and all this kind of stuff. But kind of secretive, because the music I was listening to with my friends was much, much different," he said.

"My father's music, I always remembered hearing, but it wasn't anything I began actively listening to for quite some time. I was much older when I was seeking it out, desiring it and really wondering about it."

His mother was a classically-trained pianist and would play that type of music on her piano and the stereo, exposing Ravi to Dvorak, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, "And I liked that music. I secretly liked it. I couldn't really tell a lot of my friends," he said.

"With jazz music, my mother was still playing professionally and her music was changing, going through many different things I the 70s. So I heard that side of what she was doing. The musician's life. Her integrating all these different things in her music. She'd show up and there would be a tamboura sitting in our living room and that would be there for a while. Things were always being thrown into the mix," he recalled.

Ravi was playing clarinet in high school, but jazz music was just something cool, not anything he viewed serious. Then, after the tragedy that claimed his brother's life, things changed. "For about four or five years, I just stopped doing everything. Stopped playing the clarinet. I wasn't really doing anything. Just trying to adjust and come back to center. We all just went off a little bit. The whole family dynamic changed radically. It was around that time I started thinking about, "what am I going to do""

His love of film and film scores had him considering film school as he worked a variety of odd jobs—supermarkets, a pizza place, movie theaters. It was around 1985 or 1986 that he started to feel the pull from John Coltrane. Gentle, at first. Curiosity. A quest for a bit more knowledge. But it led to a transformation.

"I was getting a little bit older and I wanted to learn more about my father, kind of in a technical way. In my mind, I had already heard the music and more or less knew what it was about. That was my young feeling about it. But I was getting older and I wanted a little more information. I didn't pay attention to the details. It wasn't like, "Let me go to John Coltrane to figure out what music is about." It was like, 'this is my dad, I need to figure out what he was about. Let me just play some of his records. Get some of these dates, some of these names. Who's this guy playing piano" When was this recorded" Trying to fulfill an almost non-musical kind of thing.

"At that point, I started to hear it differently. It started to have a different affect on me. The reason I went to it—everything just sort of stopped. What happened is I really started to connect with the music in a way that I hadn't in my whole life. I got stuck. I stopped listening to most of the music I was listening to at the time—Prince and all kinds of music at that age. I got way into jazz music. I started finding other musicians to listen to and stuff. Sonny Rollins and more Charlie Parker. I just got obsessed with it.

The transformation was more than just musical. It pointed Ravi into the direction that his life has now taken, full steam ahead.

"I didn't realty see it then, but I saw it years later. There was a huge hole in my life. A huge empty space. I needed something. I really needed something and it turned out to be that music. It put me back in motion again."

Coltrane told his mother he'd like to give music school a chance—something she had never pushed on him—and he enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts. "I enrolled to see if music was something I wanted to do or even could do," he said. "It was a total experiment. There was no design. I didn't stand up and say, 'today I will be a musician." It was not like that. My mother never laid that on me my whole life, which was very cool. She never told me, "You have to do this," or "you have to do that."

Ravi expanded his list of sax influences to people like Sonny Rollins, but as he went through school, he was daunted by the heavy aura of the great jazzmen he was investigating. He had doubts about going on, trying to tread in the footsteps of those musical giants. A recording from Wynton Marsalis changed things.

"I got a record called Black Codes From the Underground and I saw all these young black men playing these instruments and it really sounded great. That was a moment when I thought, "Maybe I can do this. Maybe it's possible for people to do this." So I was a big fan of Branford's in school and I started to make little trips to New York. I was meeting people, and people were turning me on to other musicians. I got into Ralph Moore, the tenor player. There was a time I only wanted to sound like Ralph Moore. When you're young, you can idolize different people for different reasons in different ways. I would follow guys around and go to their gigs. It was a fun period for me."

He started doing a few gigs around home. It even got his mother excited, who landed a few gigs with her on keyboards and Ravi on sax, dates Coltrane labels as "premature" in the scheme of things.

"But almost everything I did was kind of premature. People were apt to want to give me a break or give me a chance. "Oh, let's hear this Coltrane guy." Way before I was ever really ready. So every situation for me was like trying to play catch up," he said. Including his big break, the two-year gig with the titan Elvin Jones, the driving rhythmic force behind the classic John Coltrane Quartet that turned everybody out in the 1960s and continues to do so today. Ravi was unsure about the ramifications of having a Jones-Coltrane connection and how people might view. He was also unsure he was up to the task, musically.

Jones saw the same thing, but still wanted Ravi.

"He's a tremendous musician. He was embarrassed not to be recognized for his own talent," said Jones . "He thought people would just cater to him because he was the son of John Coltrane. I had to get him out of that way of thinking. I said, 'You can't control what somebody else thinks. You can control what you think. What you do is because you want to do it. And it's you doing it. Nobody else could play that but you. That mouthpiece is in your mouth not somebody else's. You're the one that has to exert the breath control.' So he sort of came around and got so he could enjoy himself."

"He was so encouraging. And literally I called him and told him I didn't think I was really ready," Coltrane said. "And I did say it would be too distracting to have someone named Coltrane in your band. I said, "I wouldn't want to bring that to your group and to the other players. And I wouldn't want to bring that on to myself." It was something I was learning to dodge and manage the entire time I was playing. Because my whole life went by before I ever heard 'the son of John Coltrane." As soon as I picked up the saxophone was the first time I heard it. I was labeled the son of John Coltrane in 1986. I didn't grow up hearing that. I didn't have any weird pretense about who I was. I was just me. But people were kind of putting this thing on me and I had to say, "I hear where you're coming from, but I'm just trying to do my thing."

There were several key sideman gigs after Jones, including Geri Allen and Kenny Barron. Also a two-tenor group he formed with Antoine Roney, Grand Central, and a couple other CD's under his own name. His career has moved along well.

Being the son of a legend could have been intimidating, even crippling. But it's something Ravi has handled with comparative ease. He appears absolutely centered and aware of his own individuality, his own potential, his own passion.

'the burden is very exterior. It's not an internal burden within me, something that I struggle with daily, like "Oh my god, my father's John Coltrane so I have to be great." I didn't grow up that way. It wasn't that this man was in my house and I saw him every day and tried to emulate him. Maybe the offspring of some famous people who witnessed them and are kind of drawn into their energy, maybe they end up with more of that internal struggle. I didn't have that growing up. I'm just a guy who digs music. I pick up my horn for the same reason that 99 percent of the people pick up their horns: because they heard some music that turned them on and that's why they started playing," he said straight forward.

"I've had the weirdest reviews sometimes. Everything is directed to John Coltrane. 'the first tune Ravi played he didn't sound like John Coltrane and the second tune he played he kind of sounded like him" What guy in the world gets reviewed this way" But I can't really help that. I can only do what I can do, and hopefully somebody can see that I'm a guy that's just trying to play."

Still, the force of his father is strong, and it's something he continues to deal with, but not out of intimidation or out of the perception that he has to approach the great Trane's status. He separates Dad from Trane.

'the two forces are kind of strong. Anybody's feeling about their own father, especially a father they never knew, obviously there's going to be a strong feeling there. Separate from who he was and what he did in the public sense. I heard stories from my mother and different family members about my father and the kind of things he did as a man and a person and a father. Home movies and photos. Yeah, there's a very distinct line in that regard. And obviously, there's his station as one of the very greatest saxophonists to ever play. He's pretty strong," said Coltrane, adding with a laugh, "and then they kind of meld at times and I really get freaked out."

Ravi Coltrane has come to terms with all of it. He embraces his lineage, but isn't stifled by it. He understands when people bring it up, and is unruffled. There's enough to deal with out there in the world and in the industry without getting genitalia tied in a knot over such things.

"At this point I want to bear down and focus," he said.

"All I know is I want to be doing something that's creative and personal. Everybody that I look at in the past, that's what they did. Monk was not trying to play like anybody else. John Coltrane was not trying to carry on the legacy of Dexter Gordon or Lester Young. He was doing his thing. He loved that music and it was a part of what he did, in a way, but he did his own thing.

"Fortunately the people I associate with and play with today, that's what we all kind of feel, regardless if the critics are buying it or we"re selling records. The idea is to be as creative and as personal as you possibly can. To me, that's what I want to continue doing and hopefully, that's what I will be doing."

Dad would be proud. So would Trane.

Visit Ravi Coltrane on the web.


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