Ravi Coltrane On Jazz, Legend and Progression
One thing you can say about jazz, even if you don’t know a heck of a lot about jazz: it’s not static.
“You have to move on and keep on becoming who you are as a person, as a musician, and in terms of the kind of music you’re playing,” says Ravi Coltrane, the highly regarded saxophonist who comes with his quartet to the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington, November 20 at 8 p.m.
Coltrane knows a little something about that, which is why he’s been steadily carving out his own sound, his own music. Most recently, he’s signed on with Blue Note Records, with an album coming out next year, a legendary label that celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. To further the connection, in 2008 he became a part of The Blue Not 7, a septet formed specifically for the anniversary celebration.
Lots of lines—personal, musical, and legend, crisscross the life of tenor and soprano sax player Ravi Coltrane.
He has a pretty clear idea of who he is, and isn’t. “I’m not my dad,” he said. “I appreciate and revere my father’s work, but you have to carve your own image, your own style. And sure, there are influences. But I don’t think I came to this because I’m my father’s son.”
He’ll tell you that he didn’t start out being interested in jazz. “I played the flute in school, I was in the band,” he said. “And initially, I was interested in composing film scores, that kind of thing. So I did not come to jazz out of the chute, so to speak.”
And yet, lineage, legend, and the naming of names, working out a kind of apprenticeship in an age where jazz has changed tremendously, play out in a man’s life.
Coltrane, now in his 40s, is, after all, the son of the jazz giant John Coltrane, who also played tenor and soprano saxophone. And the saxophone itself is the instrument of choice of the some of the most dramatic tortured genius-types in jazz history, most prominently Charlie Parker, the late and lamented king of improvisational jazz—the often lyrical free-flying “Bird”.
“I was two when my father died,” Coltrane said. “It’s not like he figures so strongly in personal memory. The difficulty becomes in being your own man while loving my dad’s music. No doubt it’s had some effect.”
The saxophone first appeared in his life as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t exactly a hint, but there it was, and eventually he took it up. “I don’t think it was something that was meant to push me into a certain direction,” he said. For him, it was like finding money in the road. You can pick it up, but you choose how you use it and spend it.
If you look at his bio, the story begins in 1991. His active jazz career begins at age 26, a late start by some standards. But when you’re the son of a legend whose memory is still strong, and whose music is still around, and when you have a mother equally gifted and legendary—the great jazz pianist Alice Coltrane—and when you’re named after Ravi Shankar, the influential Indian Sitar player, there are no doubt some pressures to find your own way.
He did it by paying his dues, playing as a sideman with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Branford Marsalis, Geri Allen and others. By 1997, he was ready to go on his own, recording his first album, “Moving Pictures.” He built several groups, but since 2005 he has worked with is quartet, with bassist Drew Gress, pianist Luis Perdomo and drummer E.J. Strickland.
A 2005 concert trip to India to raise HIV awareness seemed almost a homecoming. He eventually met his namesake.
“Jazz has changed,” he says. “The audience is bigger, but also more diverse. There are all kinds of new influences, from Latin to Asian, and jazz has really spread. But the result has been that there are not quite the dominating, influential figures like Monk, Miles, Satchmo, Parker and so on. It’s a whole new world in some ways.”
He’s part of the vanguard of that new world, not the old guard, in spite of all the history that trails behind him, always evolving, moving on ahead, playing his music, expanding its horizons, improvising and energizing.