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Ravi Coltrane Quartet at Cornell University

Tyran Grillo By

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Ravi Coltrane Quartet
Bailey Hall @ Cornell University
Cornell Concert Series
March 20, 2015

With chromatism in his very chromosomes, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane has managed to cut a profile distinct from that of Father John. Nimble yet logical, he is an admirably balanced player who keeps his feet on the tightrope at all times. When he took to the main stage as part of Cornell University's 2014-15 Concert Series, he proved himself to be quite the sonic chameleon, morphing between styles and registers with edginess of intuition. Joining Coltrane were pianist David Virelles, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Johnathan Blake, each of whom held his own and then some in the ensuing tangle.

The Thelonious Monk chestnut "Epistrophy" opened. Ravi began with a whisper, coaxing the trio into full-blown density before Virelles went all in, despite the odds stacked against him. This set a formidable precedent for the rest of the evening, which unfolded with easy organicity. Staying the course or veering wildly from it, Coltrane never overpowered, often content to wait in the wings and let his bandmates spread their own. Virelles's wingspan was especially broad. Whether unpacking a solo to its full potential or stewing in dissonant comping, he spoke like a poet at the keyboard. Blake, too, was a wealth of variation and just as melodic in his sense of space and coloration. Douglas, for his part, was more anchorage than helm, but nevertheless surfaced now and then with beautiful treasures, such as his legato solo during Coltrane's original "Marilyn & Tammy" (from the 2012 album Spirit Fiction). The latter tune also marked the first transition from tenor to soprano saxophone, on which the composer excelled. Coltrane further commanded the room on soprano for his own "Quilly's Blade," which over a lush fundament allowed for some insane virtuosity and strung a pointillist monologue from Virelles, whose hands showed fierce independence.

Virelles's own "Biankoméko" (from 2014's Mbókò) was, in fact, the highlight of the evening. In it, Blake swept the floor with his drums before Virelles unrolled a flowing carpet for Coltrane's tenor. The pianist was in absolute control. Ritualistic yet playful, his music evoked a trance state that seemed to exchange one reality for another. Coltrane's modal playing signaled a luminescent rejoinder before ending in a void. He continued on tenor for a gorgeous rendition of Paul Motian's "Endless," which stirred the waters of recent memory with unavoidable nostalgia. Neither did Douglas's sensitivity here go unnoticed.

Coltrane stepped up his game, and his instrument, for the last tune. Charlie Parker's "Segment" started with a thick bass intro before a sopranino's clarion tones danced over Blake's lake of fire. The sopranino lent further sanctity to Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," the concert's balladic encore.

Coltrane and his bandmates settled into their groove from the first and maintained it to the last, showing that if you take the old and the new, you get the here and now.

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