I DO not subscribe to the views of critics, who believe that the terrain would have been easier for saxophonist Ravi Coltrane to tread had he started by using his father’s music as a steppingstone. Comparable to Femi Kuti, the son of the Afrobeat legend, who started by creating his own music — within the Afrobeat landscape — Ravi, son of the acknowledged saxophone wizard established his own image and sound identity instead of leaning on his father’s music. The fact that he stepped out of his father’s shadow from the very beginning speaks volumes for his individuality and originality. And he has since proved it.
The young Coltrane’s first Jazz Machine performance was in Los Angeles and led to a two-year stint on the road. At first, he was nervous and rattled by dates, but the music drew him in. While he had been successful in warding off comparisons to his father, his gigs with Elvin Jones (his father’s drummer who joined him) were something different, especially with promoters bent on exploiting the connection. He ended up sharing co-billing on some programmes as Ravi John Coltrane or John Ravi Coltrane and was often introduced as the son of Coltrane. His response? “I played in an honest way to show people who I was.”
During this time, Coltrane threw himself into more sidemen work, including important associations with pianist Joanne Brackeen and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. In regard to the former, he learned how to better structure his music. As for Coleman, the young saxophonist picked up pointers on exploring new rhythmic ideas as well as on how to rethink each part he played each night.
Patiently, Coltrane held off making his debut as a leader until 1998 when he was 32. Produced by Steve Coleman, Morning Pictures attracted attention as Coltrane’s tenor saxophone performance displayed only a hint of his dad’s voice. In 2002, he self-produced his sophomore outing, From The Round Box, also on RCA Victor Label, where he exhibited more maturity and confidence as a leader. His band expanded to a quintet with trumpeter Alessi, who guested on the first CD), pianist Allen, bassist James Genus and drummer Eric Harland.
In March 2008 at Birdland, before his quartet took the stage on the opening set of a four-night stint, Coltrane sighed, “it’s been a tough year,” he said. “I’m a bit out of sorts.”
Notwithstanding, once the music started, he took charge and commandeered the show on tenor and soprano saxophones with a mix of torrid solos, tender melodic embraces, haunting soul and melancholic passages that suggested a solemn guest. You could feel the depth of each note, (from the recording) turn and pockets of lyricism that at times exploded into a wail of anguish. Leaving all pretenses behind, the young Coltrane ended, surprisingly, with an inside-out version of his father’s Giant Steps, steering the tune into a new direction with the recognizable theme holding only a slightly luminescent preserve.
Less than three months after this impressive performance, back at Birdland as a now permanent member of the ‘Saxophone Summit’ (after taking the place of Michael Brecker), Coltrane again exuded an air of weariness, “I need to take a year off from traveling to find out what matters,” he said, before taking the stage with fellow reeds mates Joe Lovano and David Liebman.
Meanwhile, recognizing the fickle nature of the recording industry, Coltrane formed his own label, RKM Records in 2002 with a catalogue that now includes CDs by some of the brilliant sidemen on the scene. Actually, this is an initiative that his father did not take until close to his death in 1967. The likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and most of the jazz greats were not known for taking the bull by the horns when it came to taking control of their destinies, as far as the recording business was concerned. It was only five years ago that it occurred to Sonny Rollins who is now 82 to take charge of his own record label – Doxy.
BORN in New York in 1965, he has no memory of his father, who died a few weeks short of his second birthday. In Junior High School, Coltrane opted to learn an instrument. His first choice was the trumpet, but he was forced to settle on the clarinet because all the trumpets had been taken. There was no maternal pressure. He continued playing the clarinet into high school and entertained studying classical music or joining an orchestra. However, in 1982, he abruptly stopped playing after his elder brother, John Jr, died in a car accident. “A shock wave went through the entire family,” recalled Coltrane, who also has a younger brother, Oran and an elder sister, Michelle. “We got dislodged from what we were all doing.”
Coltrane took his graded examinations and left school early, then went into a holiday pattern of odd jobs for the next three years. In 1985, he broke the spell. The source of the healing? His father’s records, which he began to listen to carefully for the first time. “I’d always been aware of his music, but it wasn’t until I was 19 that it grabbed me by the throat and shook me around. Slowly, I began to hear the music in a different way. I had a huge void in my life when my mother died and I needed to connect to something.”
Coltrane then moved onto Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. He decided to go to school and study saxophone. In 1986, he enrolled in Cal Arts, a short distance from his home, where Haden, a friend of his mom, was the artistic director. “It was a safe experiment,” said Coltrane who bought a soprano saxophone for his studies. “It wasn’t about becoming a professional musician. It was a personal challenge. Let’s see if I can do this. Literally, when I started, I couldn’t string two notes together. I had no conception of improving.”
In his first semester, Coltrane was thrust into a different world, where his family name immediately conjured up greatness. “Previously, I was just Ravi,” he said. Then, suddenly, I was John Coltrane’s son.”
FOR the students at Cal Arts, Coltrane’s presence was a big deal,” recalled trumpeter Alessi. “But we never made a big deal of it. We treated Ravi as just another student. Some of us had a lot more experience, but we wanted to create an environment that was supportive. When I first met Ravi, he was just starting to improvise. Even though he was a beginner and could hardly make a sound, you could hear something there that was special.”
However, six months later, in January 1991, Coltrane got a call from Elvin Jones — for a recording. He was reluctant saying, “I’m still not ready. I’ll be a distraction in your band, seeing how people get so hyperaware when someone named Coltrane shows up with a saxophone,” he said. But Jones was persistent. That was the beginning of a career that is today blossoming for Ravi Coltrane.
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