Mike Ragogna: Ravi, let’s get into the concept of your new album, Spirit Fiction.
Ravi Coltrane: I wouldn’t call it a play on words, but I do like to let the listener decide what the meaning of those words may suggest to them. It’s a little abstract, but not too abstract.
MR: You’re the son of jazz icons, Alice and John Coltrane, and in the song “Marilyn & Tammy,” you’re talking about your other relatives.
RC: That song in particular, yes. It’s dedicated to my mother’s sister, Marilyn McLeod and her daughter Tamra Ellison. They were best friends in all of their time together; Tammy passed away, sadly, a few years ago. There’s something about this tune that reminds of their vibe and their energy together.
MR: Speaking of energy, how do you get inspired?
RC: I’m inspired by the challenge of it, the unknown. It’s always been very exciting for me, when things have been mastered before to recreate the past in a way that’s more traditional. That doesn’t always excite me that much.
MR: You had Joe Lavano with you on this project overseeing as producer. You also had two variations on the “bands” you used. Can you go into how you approached this album creatively?
RC: I had a lot of ideas, a lot of ambition, and sometimes, not all of it works. You might try a thousand different things and only find five that you think are worthwhile. I always overplan a little bit when I do these recordings. I try to record more material than I know will even fit on the album, just to give me the option to arrange things after the fact. Joe Lavano was a guy I have been hanging out with since the late ’80s. He’s a mentor, a great friend, and obviously, one of our greatest saxophonists out here. I’ve been working with him more closely over the last five years or so in the group saxophone summit along with David Liebman. I’m liking his style in the studio; I made a few record dates with him just to watch him do his thing in the studio–very clean, very efficient, and a little bit of that old school edge. I thought that would be a good thing for me to incorporate into my sessions. I had performed a little bit with my regular band in a few sessions last year, and I knew I was going to record some more. I had this idea of reforming an older group that’s featured on my second record, From The Round Box, which is a quintet. It was an interesting turn of fate having these sessions with two different groups and have the music work together and balance out.
MR: You’re a great improviser, of course, and I want to ask you about the song “Roads Cross.” It’s one of the great improv moments on the album, and it starts off the album, setting the mood. Can you talk about how it was created?
RC: Sure, thank you for commenting on that, that’s the whole idea with “Roads Cross.” It’s an introduction for the album. The album, for all intents and purposes, starts with the next track, “Clepto.” “Roads Cross” is saying, “Here we are, this is what we’re about, we’re going to dig as deep as we can in regards to improvisation and focused listening, like a kind of unified collective of improvisers.” For me, that piece, “Roads Cross,” and the other take of it, which is called “Cross Roads,” really illustrate where I feel we’re coming from as improvisers. We like to do spontaneous improvs during the course of a day in the studio. We have some planned materials, some tunes and whatnot. Then we’ll throw some ideas in, we’ll take a break and say, “Hey let’s try an improv where half the bands does this and the other half does that. Roll the tape, let’s go!” That’s essentially how it was. A bunch of them don’t work, then you have one or two that really do. I think they were some of the strongest pieces we recorded.
MR: I also want to bring up another experiment you had on the project. You tell me if its improv or not. On “Spring & Hudson”–as in the NYC streets–it’s just you and E.J., the drummer. You recorded it in such a way as to emulate The Half Note.
RC: Yeah, I was literally facing my drummer E.J. Strickland. We set up some stereo microphones in front of the saxophone and I was moving as if I were on a stage with him. I had a little more flexibility in that regard. I love playing duets with people. If we’re playing on a stage, my back is to the musicians. When you can face a musician directly on, you can start picking up on visual cues; you can see him lift his stick up, you can see when he is going to hit the drum; you can start to mirror the energy of their physical movements. It affects the improvisations when both musicians are looking dead at each other. The title does come from the quote “The Half Note.” The bandstand was so small that the musicians were forced to set up right next to each other facing each other. You can hear how that proximity affects the way they improvise and how well they can anticipate each other’s moves.
MR: There’s something romanticized about playing those smaller clubs where you have challenges performance-wise. How do you feel about that, looking at it after all these years?
RC: It affected the work. I don’t know if music would have progressed and grown the way it did if it wasn’t cultivated and developed in small clubs. To play this music on a giant stage in front of a giant audience is a totally different thing. When you’re in a tight room where you can literally hear every note at every moment, every beat at every pulse, you can get a certain type of precision, a certain kind of exactness to your feel and your phrasing to how the music flows. It’s hard to imagine this music developing the way it did in any other type of environment.
MR: After a club date, you theoretically go home and you sleep, then you wake up. Then after a dream, you come up with a title for one of your songs, which is called “Change My Girl,” right?
RC: We usually don’t sleep after the club dates, the sun’s usually coming up and we have to get ready for the next day’s work.
MR: (laughs) I was just setting the question up, but let’s get into the song’s title coming to you in a dream.
RC: I like to keep a list of titles and things. You might be walking down the street and a phrase might come to your head. You say, “That could make a good title,” so I just write them down. That was from a dream that I had years and years and years ago. A bunch of us were at a session and trying to decide what tune to play next. Somebody was saying, “What about this, what about this,” then someone said, “What about ‘Change My Girl?’ In the dream, I said, “Okay, fine, let’s play that, everyone knows that tune.” It seemed so casual in the dream, as if it were a standard that everybody knew. So I woke up, wrote it down, and here we are decades later.
MR: And that’s obviously also how you got the title “Who Wants Ice Cream?”
RC: (laughs) For me, it’s “Who Doesn’t Want Ice Cream?” It’s redundant. That’s a Ralph Alessi song. He is a great composer and also a master at coming up with these very idiosyncratic titles. It’s a fun song with a fun title. I think people like the title as much as the song. It’s a win-win situation.
MR: You have three numbers by him on this project.
RC: Yes, he composed three pieces, and he is featured on a few others.
MR: You also cover “Check Out Time.”
RC: That’s right, Ornette Coleman is one of our biggest leaders. We’ve been following his music for as long as we’ve been on this planet. I have recorded his music before, and always feel compelled to play his music. Again, he is one of our great heroes. To be in a recording session with Joe Lavano and Geri Allen and not go into an Ornette Coleman song is not the right thing to do. He did two records on Blue Notes. One was called New York Is Now, the other is Love Call.
MR: You also do a Paul Motion song called “Fantasm.”
RC: Yes we do, “Fantasm” is a beautiful composition. Paul had just passed away maybe about a month or so before that session. Joe’s relationship with Paul dates back to late ’70s, ’80s. I think he was in his twenties when he met Paul for the first time. I asked Joe if there was a song that he thought would be appropriate to do. He said right away, “Fantasm.” I felt like it was something that needed to happen in that moment.
MR: Ravi, what advice do you have for new artists?
RC: Keep an open mind. Music lives not only in the present, it can also live in the future. People have this idea that jazz lives only in the past. Obviously, we have great monuments and great pillars from the past that will always guide us and inform us. But really, they were trying to make sense towards the future. I don’t think you can listen to Thelonius Monk without realizing that it’s really what’s happening. His command and knowledge of tradition and what came before him is firm. But really, his desire to move forward and express a more personal vision in music, that’s when innovation happens. We’re not often taught as young music students to use our intuition and imagination. We’re taught to emulate and copy the past. A lot of us get very comfortable doing that and feel no desire to rely more on our intuitions. Following our path to “what if” is much harder to teach or instill in a young person. For me, there are great benefits with trying to embrace that. All you have to do is look at the past; that’s what these guys did. The John Coltranes, the Miles Davis’, the Charlie Parkers took on the past but embraced the future even more so.
MR: Beautiful answer, Ravi. I have a question from David Proctor Hurlin, an amazing jazz drummer here in the Midwest. He asks you, “In the context of improvisation, how does one balance accountability to musical form and structure, and accountability to total desire.”
RC: Accountability…I’m trying to understand how he’s relating that to improvisation.
MR: Maybe the actual performance to the musical form and structure?
RC: What are our goals as improvisers? To play something we’ve worked out in advance, or actually play something that is totally caused by the moment, that’s played for the moment, for the purposes of the moment. Identifying what our roles truly are as jazz musicians, that’s key, really. Some people are like, “I just want to swing, I just want to carry the flag for the tradition.” That’s a moot level, that’s first gear. It’s a necessity that is a natural component, but it’s what comes after that. As far as accountability goes, we have to do more than master the past. We have to embrace something more personal, and hope that it will lead to something new.
MR: Do you ever feel your parents John and Alice smiling down on you?
RC: I hope so, I hope they’re smiling.
MR: When you create music, do thoughts of them ever come to you?
RC: They are in my thoughts all the time. They are a part of everything I do. Not in a romanticized kind of way. I can’t even articulate it. It’s just there.
1. Roads Cross
3. Spirit Fiction
4. The Change, My Girl
5. Who Wants Ice Cream
6. Spring & Hudson
7. Cross Roads
8. Yellow Cat
9. Check Out Time
11. Marilyn & Tammy
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