Despite the famous last name — and the fact that he plays the same instrument as his father — Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz icons John (sax) and Alice (piano), doesn't pretend to be anything more than just a saxophonist. He could claim rights of royalty or expect open doors, but such notions would only diminish the music he proudly produces.
"You know, the saxophone, like any instrument, requires a lot of discipline to try and please other people and meet others' expectations," he says with a laugh over the phone from New York City.
"For me, that [expectation] was never part of why I was playing or chose the music I was playing or followed the musicians I followed. It's not for me to internalize someone else's idea or expectation . . . All I'm trying to do is play some music and be who I am, much in the same way as John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane. They were not imitating somebody else or trying to be anything more than be who they were."
Ravi Coltrane is scheduled to perform Sunday, July 29, at the Musical Instrument Museum.
Though there are noted similarities between Coltrane's tonal playing and free-form expression, every saxman alive gleaned something, consciously or not, from the elder Coltrane, who died when Ravi was just 2. That said, 46-year-old Ravi Coltrane earned his chops working as a sideman, admittedly with some of his father's cohorts — Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and others. It's likely that a leadership role could have materialized at any time, but, he stresses, the music was more important than fame.
"You have to pay your dues. It's going through the process. It's not even bad paying your dues," he says. "I enjoyed it, being a sideman. I got here [New York] in 1991, and I knew I had a lot to learn. The learning process never ends, but clearly the foundational years were very, very important. I had a lot of important opportunities to work with real contributors here. It only made it easier when I got to do my thing . . . For me, the transition from primarily a sideman to primarily a leader, I was not in a rush for that."
Once Coltrane made the jump, musical ideas erupted from him like a volcano. Each album he's released charts his progression with an increased willingness to take chances and explore that deeper musical vision lurking within. On his latest, Spirit Fiction, Coltrane showcases that vision as he moves through bop and modal progressions to more contemporary or exploratory numbers.
The title track shows Coltrane's enthusiasm — like dear old Dad is — to conceptualize unexplored avenues of sound. Running late for a recording session, Coltrane instructed his bassist and drummer to record a series of duets. Arriving with his pianist, Coltrane then created perhaps the first jazz mash-up.
"'Use different directions for each [duet], but keep the directions consistent.' That was all I asked them to do," he says. "The only thing I knew about what they had recorded was the lengths of the recordings. We just rolled the tape in the same spot and literally overdubbed on top of the recordings. There was no editing, no assembly, and no matching one groove to the other. It's literally magic how these things interact."
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That's the beauty of jazz when explored by a young master confident enough to take the next step — even when it might lead to a fall.
"I feel like I'm just being as honest as I can about what my beliefs are and just trying to make music that makes sense for me," he says simply.
No one should expect anything more than that.