Ravi Coltrane’s Spirit Fiction
It’s risky, to say the least, for John Coltrane’s son to take up the tenor and soprano saxophones as a profession, yet that’s what Ravi Coltrane has been doing for 25 years, 15 of them as a leader, and his latest album, Spirit Fiction (his first on the Blue Note label), is his triumph.
He’s plowing mainly in the modal fields of his father’s legacy, music untethered from chord changes, doubly dangerous territory, not just because he’s begging comparisons but because most horn players who go that route get stuck running up and down scales for lack of anything to say or any harmonic weather vanes to follow.
Yet Ravi Coltrane, who’s 46 (he wasn’t quite 2 when John died at the age of 40), wastes no notes, and he seems to have a built-in radar that hones in on the structural shape of the music, however elusive. There’s a free spirit in his playing but it’s never random. Nor is it at all formulaic; it teems with a quiet, persistent passion. And his tone is surefooted, full-bodied, and clean. He doesn’t imitate his father, not at all, though his style has some of its roots in Wayne Shorter, in some ways his father’s most prominent acolyte; and the feel of the music and the ensemble is reminiscent of Miles Davis’ mid-’60s quintet, in which Shorter played a major role.
About a year ago, I saw Coltrane sitting in with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West at Birdland in New York City (subbing for Haden’s usual tenorman Ernie Watts). Toward the end of the set, they played Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” (on which Haden had played in Ornette’s original 1959 recording). In the middle of the song, there’s a bridge that Ornette takes in a completely different direction. In ever other cover of the tune that I’ve ever heard, the soloist either tries to copy Ornette, note for note, or drifts into chaos. Ravi played a real bridge that followed the spirit of the original but carried his own distinctive stamp. I asked him about it afterward. He said that, growing up in California, he took lessons from Haden, in which they went over that song in great detail, transcribing each part and parsing its structure. His solo grew out of this deep familiarity with the song’s form, and the same can be said for every song (most of them originals) on Spirit Fiction.
The album consists of takes from three sessions. Five of the 11 tracks, recorded by Chris Allen at Sear Sound, feature Ravi’s quintet: Geri Allen, piano; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; James Genus, bass; Eric Harland, drums (with Joe Lovano sitting in on tenor sax on two of the tracks). Another five, recorded by Dave Kowalski, at Bennett’s, feature his quartet: Luis Perdomo, piano; Drew Gress, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums. One, recorded by Joe Marciano at Systems Two, is a sax-drums duet with Strickland. (All the tracks were mastered by Allan Tucker, at Foothill Digital.) The quartet sessions are a bit more adventurous and, sonically, more pumped-up; the quintets are more melodic and sound more stripped-down realistic. But the album as a whole is no mishmash; its various angles come off more like a prism, refracting the same rays of light. And it sounds very good.