Ravi Coltrane finds his way with the help of famous father's friend
It was 1990 in California, and Ravi Coltrane had a secret.
Elvin Jones, the muscular, polyrhythmic drummer who was the driving force behind saxophonist John Coltrane’s legendary quartet, was in town for a show. It had been years since he played on the West Coast, and Ravi Coltrane, the then-25-year-old son of the famous saxophonist, spent time with Jones, hanging out at the venue and heading to music stores. "You know, doing the things that musicians do," Coltrane says by phone from a New York City cab. (It’s Saturday and he’s taking his kids to a Mets game.)
Coltrane’s secret was that he had started playing the saxophone a few years earlier. He chose not to tell Jones, but word got out anyway.
"By the end of the week he found out I was playing," Coltrane says. "Then months later he called me and asked if I was available to do some gigs. I told him that, yeah, maybe in a year because I’m still in school, I’m not ready."
Coltrane was at the California Institute of the Arts studying music, but as he self-deprecatingly describes, "I could barely string two notes together. I can do three or four now." Coltrane came to the music late, but Jones wanted to make sure he benefited from an appropriate apprenticeship. Still, the young saxophonist with the famous name was hesitant.
"I was an Elvin fan and I didn’t want me having the name Coltrane to be a distraction for me and the other guys in the band," he says. "I try to avoid that whole ‘Coltrane’ thing. It was never an angle for me."
Jones said he wanted him in the band in four months’ time.
"Elvin doesn’t take no for an answer," laughs Coltrane. "He said, ‘I want to help you.’ You don’t say no to Elvin."
And then the real education began…
The stint with Jones was followed by gigs with Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Geri Allen, Kenny Barron and Steve Coleman, among others. The name might have given him access to Jones, but his playing turned him into a sought-after sideman for tours and over 30 recording sessions by 1997. "It was very premature to be working with Elvin at the start," he says. "But I could immediately see the benefit of being around these musicians [as a sideman]. It builds you up. I was fortunate to be around these great leaders."
Coltrane the elder was noted for a soloing style famously described as "sheets of sound" for its complex layering and barrage of notes. His quartet – which included Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass – was a powerful, intense group widely considered one of the most important in jazz history. (Don Palmer, a saxophonist who played with Tito Puente and studied with Lee Konitz, once told me about seeing the group live in New York. He said he had to hurry outside after the set so he could literally catch his breath.)
Ravi Coltrane was two years old when his father passed away from liver cancer in 1967, and for many years he leaned more toward the funk, soul, R&B and pop that was popular for a kid growing up in California during the ’70s. "Even before I decided I wanted to learn about improvisation and jazz, I always loved music," he says.
Coltrane eventually found his way to an instrument, and his mother Alice, a musician herself, made sure he found a good teacher and a quality instrument when he took up the clarinet in middle school. (His school offered the choice between music, metal shop and football.)
He switched to saxophone in high school, but that foundation – and, yes, some natural talent – enabled him to take on a demanding gig like the one offered by Jones so soon into his studies at CalArts.
After amassing a wealth of experience on the road and in the studio, by 1997 Coltrane decided he was ready to record his first album as a leader, Moving Pictures. Three years later he released From the Round Box and 2003 brought Mad 6. In between he found time to start a record label, RKM Music, and produce a four-disc compilation of his father’s music. Then in 2004 he convinced his mother to record her first album in 26 years.
We’re liking him this minute
Now it appears the jazz press and industry have coalesced around last year’s In Flux. The reviews and articles all seem to agree that he’s arrived as both an interesting player and a unique compositional talent. "One minute they like you, the next minute they don’t," he says. "Now they say, ‘He’s come into his own’ and it’s kind of a catch phrase. But that’s better than a bad review. I’m happy when people kind of hear where you’re coming from."
Coltrane’s music is usually categorized as straight-ahead jazz, but his work as a composer and soloist pushes the boundaries of that assertion. In particular, his time with saxophonist Steve Coleman, the proponent of the M-Base approach to improvised music, seems to have had a significant impact. (Coleman hates it when people refer to M-Base, an acronym for "Macro – Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations," as a musical style. "M-Base is a way of thinking about creating music, it is not the music itself," he once wrote in explanation.) With apologies to Coleman, M-Base usually creates jazz-like music where the traditional swinging beat is replaced by a complex, funkified groove that tumbles through challenging chord progressions and tight, innovative melodies. It’s improvised music of a different order, and definitely not "straight ahead."
"Steve’s music was so challenging and unusual that you have to abandon all the stuff you learned and loved using as a launching point for improvisation," Coltrane says. "I remember writing things before and thinking it was going to be too hard to play over, so I’d alter it. But now I don’t do that."
Coltrane’s music swings, but it also evokes the pulse found in Coleman’s work. The result is something accessible, but deceptively unique. And if critics (and festival programmers) like it, all the better for him.
"I’m feeling good about things," he says, now in the ballpark with his kids by his side. "Music is like a great, beautiful pursuit… Elvin played until he couldn’t play any more. It’s something that you can do your entire life and really enjoy. I was in the studio for 10 hours yesterday and I was ready to keep going."
The Ravi Coltrane Quartet
At Salles du Gesù (1200 Bleury), June 29, 10:30 p.m.