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Ravi Coltrane with the Geri Allen Trio at The Iridium, NYC

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Ravi Coltrane with the Geri Allen Trio
The Iridium
New York, NY
November 21, 2009

The Iridium is a major jazz club in the midtown section of New York City. As you approach the club, you can't help but be overwhelmed by the bombardment of intense streaming lights—like a laser light show emanating from adjacent Times Square. On this clear, unseasonably warm evening the club was to feature tenor saxophone icon Pharoah Sanders with special guest tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Unfortunately the venerable Sanders was unable to make this gig, so in his stead the talented pianist Geri Allen and her trio were substituted to play with Coltrane.

It was a disappointment to many not to be able to hear Sanders, who has accumulated a large following ever since his musical association with John Coltrane during the visionary giant's last two years, followed by the release of his own seminal album Tauhid in 1967. Despite this glitch, no doubt many were looking forward to hearing Allen and her trio along with Ravi Coltrane—perhaps a first, at least for those in attendance.

Geri Allen, an elegant pianist with an avant-garde reputation, opened the set in a straight-ahead mode with her "Timeless Portraits and Dreams" from her 2006 album of the same name. She was joined by the buoyant Kenny Davis on upright bass and by a young drummer, Kassa Overal, whose enormous Afro brought to mind the hairstyle once favored by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Without much fanfare Allen rolled right into the Charlie Parker bop classic "Al Leu Cha," playing off Kenny Davis's repeated rhythmic bass lines with beautiful cascading flurries of notes when Overal added percussive accents with padded mallets on his toms. Allen stepped it up a notch, playing in double time which set up a nice drum solo by Overal.

Coltrane arrived between songs and made his musical entrance on the third song of the set, a Charles Lloyd composition titled "Sweet Georgia Bright," a swinging composition with a memorable saxophone vamp. At first Coltrane's saxophone seemed under-amplified, but soon it became apparent that the P.A. system was not the problem. The next selection was a Coltrane composition, an untitled ballad. Despite the best efforts of Allen and her trio to inject feeling into the piece, it seemed to have no direction or poignancy. Coltrane's performance, moreover, did nothing to help elicit any emotion.

A composition titled "Philly Joe Jones," a tribute to the great Miles Davis drummer, featured Overal, who demonstrated a pulsating rhythmic approach to the song, using a combination of toms, snares and cymbals. The smiling Kenny Davis seemed to be enjoying himself as he deftly negotiated his bass with a pizzicato technique that was quite fluid. Allen and Coltrane exchanged solos as the rhythm section carried the tune.

Allen, who can be very impressionistic in her playing, stuck to a straight-ahead format of the evening. On the final composition of the first set, Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," she used the Monk classic as a vehicle for her most creative and expressive playing of the evening. Her flowing and unusually percussive performance apparently inspired Coltrane, who played with new-found emotion that seemed to be lacking for most of the evening. One can only speculate that Coltrane needed some warm-up time to really get his chops working or to feel out an unfamiliar rhythm section.

As for the Iridium, the club has changed the layout, as the tables were separated from the family-style format of connected tables, making for a more intimate experience. The club has hired a new chef, and the menu has expanded with a selection of entrees and appetizers that should please the most discriminating of palettes, helping compensate for less-than-optimal musical moments.

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