Being born the offspring of jazz iconry is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you grow up in an environment of brilliance, surrounded by people who are the best in the world at what they do. On the other hand, if you choose to follow in your parents' path, the expectations are tremendous: the tradition to carry on, the big shoes to fill, etc. Your very name is problematic. It can open the door to opportunity, but also to exploitation; and it rarely appears unaccompanied by the tag: "son of the legendary so-and-so." You are expected to carry on a legacy, the nature of which varies from critic to critic; and comparisons of your work to that of your famous parents are inevitable.
So we wouldn't have blamed Ravi Coltrane if he had decided to take up a profession other than music. But, fortunately for us, he didn't. We'll get the rare opportunity to hear him play Saturday, September 28 at Carmen's de la Calle, when he joins the offspring of another famous jazz parentage in the Gerry Gibbs/Ravi Coltrane Reunion.
Ravi was not yet 2 years old when his father, John, one of the most influential authors of the modern jazz vocabulary, died in 1967. He and his siblings were raised by their mother, who had replaced pianist McCoy Tyner in her husband's group a year before his death. Alice Coltrane, one of the pioneering successful female instrumentalists in jazz, played harp, piano, and organ. Like her husband, she was an innovator, well-known for her musical and spiritual exploration. Although music and musicians were always present, she never pushed her children to play. Ravi dabbled in clarinet, and she bought him an alto sax at age 15; but he showed no particular interest in jazz and listened to the same kind of music all kids listened to: pop, funk, rock, R&B.
In 1982, tragedy struck the family. Ravi's brother, John Jr., died at age 17 in a car accident. Ravi's childhood was brought to a halt, and he spent the next four years "floating," as he described in an interview. It was during this period of wandering and introspection that he began listening to his father's music. For several years, he listened; as he became increasingly absorbed, he began to wonder if he had the aptitude and interest to become a musician.
At 21, he began seriously studying jazz at California School of the Arts with bassist Charlie Haydn. Refusing to exploit his name, he honed his skills as a side person, working with players such as Elvin Jones, Rashied Ali, Jack DeJohnette, Wallace Roney, and drummer Gerry Gibbs, the son of vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, with whom Alice Coltrane had played (years before, Terry had introduced Alice to her husband, John). Gerry and Ravi became fast friends; and when Gerry moved to New York in 1988, he found Ravi an apartment nearby.
In New York, Ravi became involved with alto saxophonist Steve Coleman's M-Base Collective, a group of innovative musicians exploring conceptual musical growth using improvisation and structure. (M-Base is an acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations; the collective includes musicians such as saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, vocalist/songwriter Cassandra Wilson, pianist Geri Allen, and bassist Lonni Plaxico.) As opposed to a narrow, traditionalist view of the genre, the collective shares a non-Western philosophy of using music to express personal experience; of emphasizing conceptual growth over technical growth; of expanding the jazz repertoire; of eliminating boundaries.
Ravi continued to develop his skills, studying, practicing, writing, and racking up an impressive discography as a side person in New York. In 1995, he played as a leader on Gerry Gibbs' recording debut, The Thrasher (Warner Bros.), an entertaining collection of artfully arranged compositions by Gibbs, plus standards by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Gibbs shows his indiscriminate love of all genres of music in the eclectic arrangements (and his love of cartoons). Ravi's playing is masterful, with impeccable time and intonation. He makes the most challenging licks seem effortless; and his phrasing is musical even on the most disjointed lines. He swings hard on Gibbs' New-Orleans-inflected arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm," and his playing on the beautiful ballad, "Love Letter to Dawna Bailey" (a tribute to Gibbs' wife, who died of sickle-cell anemia), is meditative and appropriately wistful.
In 1998, Ravi released his debut album as a leader, Moving Pictures (RCA), with M-Base founder Steve Coleman producing, featuring his own compositions as well as tunes by Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner. It is an impressive first work from a solid player and composer, featuring M-Base collective members, and he has averaged another album every two years since (From the Round Box, released in 2000, and Mad 6, a Japanese import released this year). Taken as a whole, his work as a leader seems to be unfolding in an unhurried, organic way; he doesn't blow all his chops at once. His approach to his career seems to have been quiet, thoughtful, and cautious. He has avoided taking the shortcuts his name may have afforded him; the result is a solid, grounded player beyond musical reproach.
Saturday evening at Carmen's, Ravi and Gibbs will play two shows, at 8:30 and 10:30. Listen for tunes from The Thrasher, Ravi's originals, and unique approaches to tunes from the standard and expanded jazz repertoire. Gibbs will also interview the visiting musician on his KRTU radio show Friday, from 5:00 to 7:30 p.m. (a similar interview at a Los Angeles station stretched to three hours and lit up the switchboards). Expect general crazed wildness and visits from Gibbs' schizophrenic alter egos.
Don't go to see Ravi Coltrane because he's John Coltrane's son. Go to see him because he's a great player with something musically important to say. And if he is carrying on a legacy, it's the legacy his father left to all serious jazz musicians: a legacy of hard work, discipline, spiritual centeredness, and musical integrity; a legacy of developing one's own unique voice.
Ravi Coltrane/Gerry Gibbs Reunion
8:30 & 10:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 28
Carmen's de la Calle
720 E. Mistletoe