By Andra Jackson.
His father was the ‘high priest’ of jazz while his mother was a high priestess in an Indian religion as well as an influential jazz harpist and pianist. That is a daunting legacy to be handed but saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of saxophonist giant, John Coltrane and pianist Alice Coltrane, has managed to find his own path and is one of the luminaries of contemporary American jazz.
When we speak he is at home in Brooklyn and about to leave to play at New York’s famed Birdland Jazz Club. It is a five night engagement billed as the All star Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour show alongside vocalist Paul Midon, New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Joe Sanders, pianist Gerald Clayton, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson.
Coltrane is speaking by phone ahead of his first visit to Australia this week to open Birdland’s ‘sister club’, Bird’s Basement, in Melbourne’s CBD. He is performing six nights with his latest band that is so new it has yet to have a name. Its members have only played together a few times but he has played separately with them all in different line-ups. He has played with bassist Dezron Douglas for the last five years, he says. Other members are pianist David Virelles and drummer Johnathan Blake.
Coltrane was not yet two when his famous father died in 1967 of cancer, aged 40. He recalls his mother playing his father’s recordings in their Los Angeles home.
“I heard those records played a lot through my childhood,’’ he says. His mother’s playing was also a huge influence. He took up the clarinet at 12 and “messed around’’ with the soprano sax in his teens. “I wasn’t playing any tenor then’’. But when he was about 21 he found himself getting serious about music and about jazz, he says. “Jazz music started to have a very specific pull, a kind of calling almost.”
He studied music at the Californian Institute of the Arts. In 1991 his father’s last drummer Rashied Ali invited him to New York. Coltrane didn’t feel ready but Ali insisted and involved him in all day jam sessions in Soho. Aware that his father who revolutionized jazz, had drawn on divergent influences, Coltrane absorbed other approaches, not just his father’s. He listened to saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Joe Henderson, Branford Marsalis Wayne Shorter and Kenny Garrett.
Coltrane has since played with other greats who played with his father – drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. But he was also was drawn to his own contemporaries who were forging a new approach to improvisation. This was the M-base consortium of musicians, artists and poets whose leading figure was alto saxophonist Steve Coleman who championed exploring new perspectives on creativity. Coleman played on Coltrane’ debut album Moving Pictures.
Ravi Coltrane was named after Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. His mother’s Indian influences extended to studying Hinduism and visiting India twice a year. Coltrane recalls: “As a young kid it was always something I found a bit mysterious and even mystical in some ways. I think it did have an influence on me yet at the same time, it wasn’t anything that I was following myself.’’
A devotee of guru Sathya Sai Baba, Alice Coltrane became the swamini of the Shanti Anantam in California and stopped playing publically for twenty-six years.
Finally in 2004, she entered the studio with her son producing and playing on her return album Translinear Light. “I begged her for a long time,’’ he says of how it came about. Of the huge catalogue of recording he has played on, “this is the one I am most proud of,’’ he says. “It was a labor of love.’’
His last CD Spirit Fiction in 2012 included the track Cross Roads, nominated for a Grammy in 2013 for the best improvised jazz solo. Coltrane is also co-leader of the acclaimed Saxophone Summit with saxophonists Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman. He has his own independent record label RKM and oversees the re-release of his parents’ recordings.
“With my father, there are always things turning up.’’ It is like discovering buried treasure,’ he says. In an exclusive for ATN he reveals: “There was one recently discovery, within the past year, a new recording of A Love Supreme. It was recorded in Seattle. Nobody knows about this. We just found out about this tape’’. It is good quality and was recorded at the Penthouse where John Coltrane Live In Seattle was recorded years back.
“This was recorded near the end of 1965 and it is with Elvin, McCoy and Jimmy (Garrison) and there are a few other musicians sitting in,’’ he says.
The find is significant as there are only two known recording sessions of A Love Supreme which was a turning point in Coltrane’s career. There is the studio version by the John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass. It was released in 1965 and various alternative takes have since been released from that 1964 session. Then there is a live recording from the Antibes Jazz festival in France in 1965.
On stage, there is no swagger to Coltrane. He comes across as humble with thoughtful, well-shaped solos that seem to take even him by surprise. He plays tenor and soprano sax and the sopranino. As well as his own compositions, he includes some numbers his father played but he stops at the landmark spiritual declaration, A Love Supreme suite.
“That music, they’re more like symbols, there is less tunes in it in the traditional sense,’’ he says. “They are symbolic phrases and musical gestures. It is such a personal statement and it is a message really,’’ he says.
Just before leaving for Australia, Coltrane played in Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane tribute concerts in Portland, Oregon.
“Maybe we’ll play some of that in Melbourne as well.’’
Ravi Coltrane plays at Bird’s Basement, 11 Singers Lane, Melbourne from Tuesday March 1 to Sunday March 6.