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Ravi Coltrane: His Own Man, His Own Thing

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

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