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Ravi Coltrane: Changing and Blending Times

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The longer you do something in a collective situation, a group situation, the more the music is going to grow
Ravi ColtraneSaxophonist Ravi Coltrane, he of the inescapable surname, is continuing to grow both as a musician and a person. His playing these days contains more maturity; a sense of exploration, combined with a sureness of attack and a brawny sound.

The growing musical proficiency is documented on Blending Times (Savoy Jazz, 2009). Coltrane and his working band—pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland—address a group of tunes both written and improvised on the spot. The band takes an imaginative approach and expresses itself in a particularly free-wheeling way. The essence of jazz is its spontaneity and that comes out in this music. Coltrane is an investigative soloist throughout, but it's also his decisions as a bandleader, setting the direction of the music, that are central.

His growing as a person is ongoing, as it is with everyone, but the 43-year-old saxophonist's journey was injected with a catalyst for change in January of 2007 when his mother—mentor, guide and friend—Alice Coltrane died. Ravi has already been dwelling in a musical land where his father, John Coltrane, was a god. Playing the same instrument has drawn the expected commentaries and comparisons over the years, but Coltrane the younger has valiantly forged ahead, creating his own identity, expanding on his own grand talent through the kaleidoscope of his own experiences.

But Ravi Coltrane never really knew his iconic father, who died when was only two. He's already outlived his father, who died of liver ailments months shy of his 41st birthday. As well as being a renowned musician herself, his mother was the guiding force for Ravi throughout his life. She continues to be a profound influence and will continue to be, moving forward. But things, he admits, are different now.

"Trying to reconcile a past with my present, I guess," he says of the significance of the CD title. Four of the cuts were done in 2006, the remainder of the 10 tunes being recorded in 2007, after his mother died. "There was such a defining shift in 2007, losing my mother; I went right into the studio a month after she passed away. She passed unexpected. It was not anything I had any preparation for. I can feel the shock waves still resonating inside of me when I listen to the material from 2007."

He says his mother had never really been sick until a few years ago, but he was unprepared for her passing. "It's the hardest thing in the world. You don't realize how hard it is until it happens. It changes you. It's hard. It's really, really fucking hard," he relates. "I was very close to my mother. I can't even describe what she was to me in my daily life. She was a musician and she gave me all of my life lessons about music and the fact that we had been doing so much together recently.

Ravi Coltrane"It started out, we were doing a lot together. She bought me my first clarinet. She found an instructor for me. She would help me with my lessons at home. She was pulling us, behind the ear, on stage every now and then and performing. She was very, very instrumental with me becoming who I am as an adult. Not just raising me and doing the things that every mother does, but everything that's connected to my life. Working with her in the last three or four years before she passed, that was sort of a re-connection with all the things we were doing when I was up-and-coming and learning. When all that stuff was suddenly and unexpectedly removed, it was disorienting. It was hard to figure out what I was supposed to be doing.

"For a long time, for most of 2008 when the record didn't come out, I kept trying to figure out what this record was supposed to be about. I kept thinking maybe I needed to record the entire thing again. I had all this material from before she passed away and this stuff from after she passed away. For me, it was such a clear delineation between the two approaches, musically speaking. I finally decided maybe that's what the record needed to be about. A snapshot of these two places in my life and how they related to each other, if they did at all. How seamless they could be together. It's like a blend of my past and my present."

Except for the ballad "For Turiya," all the music on the new record has a great looseness in approach, yet the band—with the experience of working together for years—hangs together while improvising collectively. "For Turiya," a Charlie Haden composition the bassist wrote for Alice Coltrane and first recorded it with her some 33 years ago, is not done with the band. It was recorded separately by Coltrane, with Haden and harpist Brandee Younger. It contains a thoughtful tenor solo by Coltrane, showing off his rich sound and tender phrasing, no doubt a tribute to his mother.

There is a composition by Coltrane, one by Perdomo and one from Ravi's friend, trumpeter Ralph Alessi. There's also one Monk tune, "Epistrophy." The rest—some done in 2006 and some in 2007—are dubbed "improvisations conceived and directed by Ravi Coltrane." Those are loose affairs, based on a concept started with his previous CD, In Flux (Savoy, 2005). The band runs through these passages with great intuition and comes up with good music.

"Maybe the wording is a little bit loftier than the reality of it," he says, with a laugh, about the "improvisations conceived and directed" composition credit. "Those are structured improvisations, basically. An idea to set the playing in motion. Sometimes the idea is more specific. Sometimes it's just a launching off point. "First Circuit" and "The Last Circuit," the original titles for those were "Trading Duos." I wanted duet performances to be taking place, but interlinking with other sets of duos. So that drums and saxophone would start, the drums would drop out and the piano would come in. That would become the next duet. There was sort of an agenda based on what we were going to do, how long we were going to do it and the idea of getting from one to the next.

"There's no technical music direction" regarding key, tempo or what to play or not play, he says. "The only directions are really directions about the form. No discussion about musically what is going to be played. That's all part of the improvisation."

Ravi ColtraneThe process started when the band was working on music for In Flux, but at the time Coltrane had no intention of putting those improvisational exercises on record. They were a way to break the musicians away from the routine of working on the fixed compositions and doing different takes of the same themes. "They were really done to flex your ears a little bit and your intuition. When you're in the studio, sometimes, you feel you're working more and creating less. It's work. 'Let's do another take...let's do another take...let's take a break.' Sometimes your mind is not as open, initially, when that red light goes on. The improvs were a way to open us up a little bit. We might play a take or two of one song, and then play these little improvs."

He says they were structured slightly, to keep it from being totally free-form. "We'll start with this happening, we'll turn into this and we'll go from there. We start that type of playing. It's solely about listening and reacting, and how you're reacting to what's going on. You're dealing with the agenda of the improvisation. That's what's fueling the piece. We're immediately free to get into something creative, right in the moment. We're not reading anything. We haven't discussed tonalities or tempos or keys. It's all about creating."

He says the process opened things up for the musicians, getting them into the mindset of creating and playing with that kind of spirit. "But some of them turned out really nice and I wanted to put them on the record. When Blending Times came around, I really wanted to do more improvs like that and have it be part of the record from the get-go."

One thing that allows the improvs to be effective is that Coltrane has held this quartet together for a number of years, developing a sound and honing communication among the individuals.

"No matter where they are personally, or level-wise as musicians, the longer you do something in a collective situation, a group situation, the more the music is going to grow," says Coltrane. "There are things that I can do with those three guys that I couldn't do with any other group. There are great, great players everywhere. There are great rhythm sections everywhere. But when you combine all of that—individually they're all monster musicians—with the familiarity of making music with somebody year after year after year, it becomes very potent. That potential for that seamless, intuitive type of improvisation starts to take a more defined shape. It gets to sound like you know something.

Ravi Coltrane

"That's what makes it worthwhile. Because we can touch on smaller ideas. Let's start a piece and have it be about this thing that's building. Even less specific directions can lead to something that's very complete sounding, complete feeling, with these guys. We don't have to second-guess each other. We can intuit where things are going. The fact that we've been together as a group, and the way that the band is structured. From night to night, gig to gig, they kind of know. They know we don't have a set agenda. We play the same song every night, but the agenda is not set. It might be at one tempo one night, and a totally different tempo an other night. It might stop half way through and segue into something else.

"They already know that's how I want he music to go. There's an openness, a looseness as to how things are structured. They're aware. I might be playing one song and I'll start playing the next song without looking around or cuing or trying to indicate. They realize, 'I hear what he's doing. Now we're going to go here, but we're going to do it this way.' There's always a method to it. The method is always to be as compositional, as musical as possible to have it sound like it was the plan or an arranged thing. Spontaneous arrangement. Spontaneous form. They know that's what I'm going for, what I'm into. We found a way to make it musical and fun for everybody."

The music of Coltrane's quartet is intense. The group retains the sense that something unexpected might happen. The musicianship I extremely high and the interplay among the individuals is what jazz music is supposed to be.

Coltrane is also involved in other projects, and early this year it was being part of the Blue Note Records Anniversary Tour, featuring the all-star cast of Peter Bernstein, Bill Charlap, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton, Peter Washington and Steve Wilson. Last year, he was part of the Saxophone Summit, matching swords with Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman.

It's been an interesting trip from the Los Angeles area where he was raised to where he exists now, living in the New York City area and playing with first-rate players and first-rate projects. Along the way, he apprenticed with the likes of Elvin Jones, the brilliant drummer who was such a key cog in the classic John Coltrane Quartet that bowled people over during its run in the early '60s and continues to do so. He's player with many other greats along the way to becoming a leader.

Coltrane spoke a few years ago to All About Jazz, noting how his mother raised him, but never pushed him toward music. She gave him an appreciation for the arts and all kinds of music. Gradually, he started playing clarinet, but then left music for a time after the death of his brother, John Jr. He returned to music and started studying it to see if it was something he wanted to purse. Those investigations got him to look at his father's music and it struck him in a different way. More profound. His path was clear.

Alice Coltrane helped him along that path, even performing with him at times. She has been a guide and mentor all along.

Meanwhile, in addition to playing music, Ravi started his own RKM label, which has a small but polished catalog that puts artistic creativity at the forefront.

"In 2007, my mother passed away and everything in my life changed drastically," he says. "A lot of things got put on the back burner. The record got put on the back burner. I was involved with a lot of different things, trying to maintain the things that needed to be maintain in my family and the business that my mother was running. And then personally, dealing with it all."

Ravi ColtraneHe says with various business issues on his plate, as well as the technical aspects of taking care of matters when his mother died, he didn't get much of a chance to address things from a purely personal, internal stand point. Most of 2007 was spent "dealing with the exterior of it all. Dealing with changes to the family structure and the family business. Dealing with government and taxes. Running Jowcol Music (publishing company for John Coltrane's music) and my father's interest in music properties, my mother's interest in music property. All that stuff was put on me to do it. I have a younger brother and a sister, but between the three of us, I'm committing myself to that work. It was clear it was going to be me because of my connections in the music business and because I was involved in a lot of it while she was alive."

He adds, "The emotional was never really dealt with. While I'm trying to stay propped up on the outside, the inside was starting to kind of give way a little bit. I'm actually going to take a little time off after this tour (Blue Note 70th Anniversary band) is over to restructure and re-connect. And re-energize, I hope. Try to organize my life in a way that's going to make me a more efficient person, musically, personally and every possible way.

His mother's influence continues and will be perpetual.

"I can't imagine it being any different now that she's not here. Now I'm even more aware of her influence and her guidance. It's funny, when you move something from the scene; it becomes so apparent when it's not there anymore. While it's there, it's working and affecting you in ways that are on the periphery, or subconsciously. You're not that aware of how much an affect it's having on you. That type of support, that kind of unconditional love you can only get from a mother. That type of insight, that type of guidance, that type of inspiration.

"I miss her sound. I miss the way she played chords. You put a C7 in front of her, a D-minor 7, the way she would voice it. I miss that," he says, calmly reflecting.

The inspiration will surely have a positive effect on Coltrane, who is playing meaningful music, maneuvering the saxophone in wonderful ways. His playing is strong. His playing is Ravi Coltrane, his own stamp.

He's pleased with the journey and his progress along the way since moving back to New York. He's not satisfied with just being a fine saxophonist. His journey is about musical and artistic pursuit and having something to say that means something. That's already evident in his performances and playing.

"It's just about making steps. Knowing that you're moving forward. That you have intentions of growing and trying to find yourself musically, whatever that means, without the idea of saying: I'm going to learn how to play this way, be great, and go out and play a bunch of gigs," he says. We want to work and we want to be successful. That's part of what we do. But for me, I'm content to slowly—or at whatever pace. I'm not even concerned about the pace, as long as it's happening—make steps to get to this next thing, whatever the next thing is."

Ravi Coltrane

Coltrane is already thinking of forming different groups after taking some timer off to regroup. "I'm going to keep this quartet, of course. I can't let these guys go. But I would like to have some other types of musical outlets. I'm thinking about studying, either formally or informally, composition and orchestration. Writing and that kind of thing. I want to start dealing with the saxophone in ways that I've wanted to try; I just want to re-connect with a lot of these things."

"The plate has just gotten fuller and fuller and fuller over the last couple years," he says, admitting "my ability to manage it all has not improved. I used to be good at multi-tasking when there was less stuff on the plate and I had more internal momentum. Now there's way too much stuff on the plate. This thing, this drive inside of me, has been altered and affected a bit. I'm going to try correcting those things."

Count on Coltrane to do just that. And count on his musical direction to be intriguing and engaging; a fulfilling a voyage commanded by the saxophone he plays so well.

Selected Discography:

Ravi Coltrane, Blending Times (Savoy Jazz, 2009)

Blue Note 7, Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records (Blue Note, 2008)

Joe Lovano/Dave Liebman/Ravi Coltrane, Seraphic Light (Telarc, 2008)

Ravi Coltrane, In Flux (Savoy Jazz, 2005)

Alice Coltrane, Translinear Light (Impulse!, 2004)

Ravi Coltrane, Mad 6 (Eighty-Eights, 2003)

Jeff "Tain" Watts, Bar Talk (Columbia, 2002)

Ravi Coltrane, From the Round Box (RCA Victor, 2000)

Ravi Coltrane, Moving Pictures (RCA Victor, 1998)

Cindy Blackman, In the Now, (High Note, 1998)

Steve Coleman, The Sign and the Seal, (RCA Victor, 1996)

Elvin Jones, Going Home, (Enja, 1993)

Ryan Kisor, Minor Mutiny, (Columbia, 1992)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Michael Weintraub

Center Photo: C. Andrew Hovan

Bottom Photo: Eduoard Markovich

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