Ravi Coltrane's taking life by the horn
05:00 AM, Jun 23, 2013
RAVI COLTRANEHaving found a way to make his own mark in music, the son of the late, legendary John Coltrane watches over his fathers estate and legacy. Hear him play 6 and 10 p.m. Thursday at Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Tickets are $25 cash at the door or free with a club pass.
Ravi Coltrane was running late for the recording session. As was the pianist. And studio time in Manhattan isn’t exactly cheap. Coltrane called his bass player and drummer and instructed them to just start recording some rhythm tracks. Something, anything. OK, they did as they were told. And when the two tardy musicians arrived, they recorded their own parts. Without even hearing what the other guys had done. A studio engineer cued up the tracks, setting one on top of the other.
Voila! A jazz tune!
“You’re looking for meaningful coincidence,” says Coltrane, admitting that some of that day’s experiments in blindfolded jazz were a little less than meaningful. “It’s supposed to not sound like garbage. It should be very natural, because you’re used to hearing these instruments playing together. You’re always looking for creative and organic ways to inspire another approach. If the material is not coming together, it clears the thought waves.”
If it’s a gimmick, it is one that worked. After years of playing as a respected side man, backing other jazz players with his technically proficient tenor sax, Coltrane’s careful journey into the jazz-consumer consciousness seems to be blossoming in the most organic of ways. Last year the late-blooming, 47-year-old Coltrane released his sixth album, Spirit Fiction, an energetic collection that suggests that throwing caution to the wind may be an audacious approach, but is perhaps one way to bring the tension of a live performance to the studio album.
“The studio can be daunting, very mechanical,” says Coltrane, who plays the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival Thursday at Kilbourn Hall. “You’re surrounded by all of these manufacturing things. Microphones and cables. It’s the perfect environment for documenting sounds. The studio, for me, is all technical. If you make a mistake, just like when you’re typing something, you can go back and correct it.”
Nothing less should be expected of the 21st century. “They have refrigerators that make their own ice,” Coltrane notes. “You don’t have to go too far for a cold drink.”
Yet, despite the technological edge, there is much to be said on behalf of the art of the accident. “On the stage, you only have one thing the moment,” Coltrane says. “And things happen in music that we don’t intend to happen pretty regularly. Miles was famous for saying, ‘Play your mistakes.’ Wayne Shorter would say, ‘Mistakes are illusions.’ “
Miles Davis. Wayne Shorter. Ravi Coltrane had early exposure to such a circle of excellence. His father was the iconic saxophonist John Coltrane, his mother the avant-garde pianist Alice Coltrane. Such an accident of birth suggests music was inevitable.
But it was not immediately so. Living in Woodland Hills, Calif., Ravi Coltrane talks of “flying remote-controlled airplanes, riding horses with my brother in the alleyways behind Ventura Boulevard. Everybody kept horses in those days.”
Or mules in the backyard. “Except for the fact that the Ashram was next door,” he says, “we were pretty normal people.”
The Ashram. Spiritual home of Indian religious beliefs. John Coltrane spent much of his adult life exploring, searching for the spirituality that might prove to be salve for an alcoholic, heroin-addicted jazzman. The Kabbalah, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Zen Buddhism, astrology, the Greek philosophers. But primarily Hinduism and Eastern thinking, beliefs he shared with Alice Coltrane. They named their middle child after the Indian sitar master, Ravi Shankar.
Ravi Coltrane was only 2 when his father passed away at age 40 from liver cancer. That left raising the family to Alice Coltrane, who pretty much went into seclusion following her husband’s death. “She was a very, very, very unique person, incredibly unique,” her son says. “She was one of the hippest people you’d want to know but, yeah, she was deep. She had these things she was trying to discover. It was impossible to not be influenced by her deep commitment to her spiritual life.”
She passed away in 2007, after a brief but well-received revival of her jazz career. Alice Coltrane’s spirituality remains deep inside Ravi Coltrane. “My belief system travels in a similar path,” he says. “I’m a musician, I lead a committed life. I’m committed to this higher power.”
Accidents of creativity. Accidents of birth. Accidents of unimaginable despair. In 1982, a couple of senior football players at El Camino Real High School were in an auto accident. One survived. One didn’t. The one who didn’t was John Coltrane Jr., Ravi’s older brother by 13 months. Devastated, Ravi Coltrane left school.
“I floated for four years. I read Stephen King books. I worked tons of odd jobs. Running projectors at movie theaters, delivering pizzas, bagging groceries. Alice Coltrane gave her children room to find their way out of the loss of their brother. She could see what we were going through, all of us,” Coltrane says.
“She was extremely caring during this time,” he says. “She was giving us time to figure out what was important. After losing John, it was harder to define these sorts of things. You have to get to the other side of it. And music was on the other side of it.”
Ravi Coltrane had considered film school. He was interested in cameras and photography. But his father cast a giant, inescapable shadow. “I spent a good part of my life listening to popular music,” Ravi says. “James Brown, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagan. Film scores. But I do remember listening to records when I was younger, stuff like Charlie Parker, and thinking, ‘This stuff is really, really cool.’ I guess I was more moved by improvisational music, jazz music. When I started listening more to my father and Sonny Rollins, they started to pull me away from all the other things I was listening to.”
So Ravi Coltrane was a late starter, but at least he got there. California Institute of the Arts. He was 21 when he began what he calls “serious and formal playing.”
“That first year was an experiment; I literally couldn’t play at all,” he says. “But with each year, I got closer and more comfortable with the music. Each year was a stepping stone.”
Six albums, each a step. Now living in Brooklyn, he manages his own record label and the John Coltrane legacy. Two of the homes where John Coltrane once lived, in Philadelphia and in Huntington on Long Island, have been awarded landmark status. Ravi Coltrane watches over them, as well as his father’s unreleased music. It is no longer a daunting task to follow in his father’s footsteps. Or to pick up one of his father’s old saxophones and play.
“It’s just a horn,” Ravi Coltrane says. “It’s a saxophone, a piece of brass. It’s not glowing, like the Arc of the Covenant, with spirits flowing out of it.”