by Thom Jurek
Despite the metaphysical suggestion in Spirit Fiction‘s title, this is Ravi Coltrane’s most cerebral, process-oriented recording to date. This does not mean, however, that his debut offering for Blue Note Records is dry or academic. There is an abundance of emotion and sensual detail, most of it expressed gently, with the confidence — and authority — of a veteran bandleader. Coltrane employs two lineups on the date. First is his longstanding quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer E.J. Strickland. The other is the quintet that appeared on 2000′s Round Box: trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus, and drummer Eric Harland. Coltrane composed six pieces for this session and Alessi, three. There are also readings of Ornette Coleman’s “Check Out Time” and Paul Motian’s “Fantasm.” Spirit Fiction was produced by saxophonist Joe Lovano, who appears on cover tunes. Coltrane’s vision of process gets a bold workup here on three tunes. “Roads Cross” is jarring at first, head-to-head knotty, yet it jells about two minutes in. Here and on the seventh cut, conversely named “Cross Roads,” the feel is similar. This is because the quartet was recorded as two separate duos playing the tune simultaneously and then mixing them together. The title track offers a further exploration of this technique, but this time, the duos recorded the piece separately and were dubbed on top of one another. In each case, Coltrane’s process theory — using the studio as a fifth member — actually creates additional strategic possibilities not only of color and texture, but for improvisation. Other highlights are more organic in approach, the gorgeous original ballad “The Change, My Girl” provides a delicate, intricate Coltrane solo full of grace and elegance. Alessi’s “Klepto” is a solid, swinging, post-bop groover. On the trumpeter’s “Yellow Cat,” Coltrane displays his exceptionally well-developed skills as an accompanist. The interplay between Lovano and Coltrane on “Check Out Time” is instinctive, full of delightful dialogue, and a fine contrast in harmonic ideas with stellar playing by Allen. On closer “Marilyn & Tammy,” Coltrane’s soprano reveals his father’s influence in the building of arpeggios, yet the sense of compositional mapmaking is his own. Spirit Fiction is a confident next step for the saxophonist; its execution and ambition offer a glance at where he’s been, but more importantly, a solid look at where he’s going.
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