Boston Globe, May 4, 2007
The peculiar burden of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane has been to balance his own creative development with the real and symbolic duties that come with carrying one of the most important names in American – or world – musical history. Coltrane, who visits Scullers this weekend, is the son of the peerless John Coltrane and the pianist Alice Coltrane, a member of the master’s final group who later devoted herself to the spiritual life as Swamini A.C. Turiyasangitananda, founding an ashram in Southern California.
In the swirl of their legacy, Ravi Coltrane has emerged as an important voice in jazz not through anointment or fiery irruption, but rather by means of quiet perseverance. It was not until his early 20s that he devoted himself to the saxophone, and though long a valued sideman on the New York scene, he has only four albums as a leader, most recently “In Flux” in 2005.
In the past year, however, Coltrane’s role as son and heir has predominated, as a result of design and then fate. Last fall, he joined Alice Coltrane in three public concerts, her first in 25 years, accompanied by, among others, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Roy Haynes, both of whom played with his father. Ravi had already been central in bringing about Alice’s 2004 album, “Translinear Light,” which was hailed in the jazz world for both its musical strength and its historic significance.
Then, on Jan. 12 this year, Alice Coltrane died of respiratory failure at 69. Her passing has left Ravi with the responsibilities of managing the public mourning for a revered cultural figure. He is currently planning an “Ascension Ceremony,” or memorial service, to be held in New York on May 19 with a host of musicians contributing.
In a phone conversation from his home in Brooklyn, Coltrane says of the emotions and experiences of the past few months: “It’s beyond description.”
Thoughtfully and with undisguised emotion, he describes the mother-son collaboration that began with the “Translinear Light” sessions and, he says, was only gathering pace.
“I assumed this was a stepping-stone toward more music, more projects,” he says of last year’s performances. “I was looking forward to those. I think she got reenergized with the music. She had started writing again, writing for large ensembles with strings, horns, brass, woodwinds.”
As it is, she died leaving recordings toward an album of devotional music, “The Sacred Language of Ascension,” that Ravi says will be completed and released. In time, he says, he will catalog and reference all of her career recordings, as he did earlier with his father’s, and he envisions the possibility of future releases.
For now, of course, he is grateful that his efforts helped bring forth “Translinear Light” and the subsequent concerts – and, more fundamentally, that he could commune with her musically and at a high level.
“I’m very thankful and fortunate that the music came together, and honored that I could spend that time with her in that type of proximity,” he says. “It’s something that I always wanted to do, to make serious music with my mother. I never felt adequate as a musician playing with my mother. The first time I performed with her publicly, I had been playing the sax for just two years. It was very premature. Then as I was improving as a musician, she was moving further away from public performance. It was like two ships passing.”
“Translinear Light” therefore resulted from intensely felt motivation. “I wanted that record to happen badly,” Coltrane says. “I knew that she was still extremely capable as an improvising musician, and as a conceptualist. I did not want her to leave this world without that happening. It’s the most important project I have ever been involved in.”
In turn, Coltrane says that recording with Alice profited his work with his own quartet. The material is very different: Alice favored large ensembles with strings, drones, or chants to establish devotional space, while Ravi’s quartet performs a clear, modern jazz that achieves soulfulness with economy. But Coltrane recorded “In Flux” by his mother’s unhurried method, not cramming too much work into the sessions. “I was still in that Alice Coltrane gravity, that orbit,” he says, and he feels that the music benefited.
A new recording with the quartet, which includes Luis Perdomo on piano, E.J. Strickland on drums, and Drew Gress on bass (regular backup Massimo Biolcati sits in for Gress this weekend), is in the works, Coltrane says. It too was interrupted by events, but the group is performing some of the new music in its current gigs.
To interact with Ravi Coltrane right now is to meet a man “in flux” indeed, in a moment all the more intimate for the forthright, vulnerable way he describes it: “It’s a prickly new reality. I still don’t feel right in it. My train of thought, my perception of things around me are still dazed and disconnected. I have two children, a wife, a record company, and new responsibilities in relation to the estate of John Coltrane and the estate of Alice Coltrane. But I’m allowing myself to grieve, to deal with this thing in my own time.”
Indeed, Coltrane is finding his way back to the stage, his mourning channeled into the communion that is at the heart of live performance. He took the plunge with a recent weeklong stand at the Blue Note in New York and now continues the process in Boston.
“You never forget; there’s an emptiness that’s always there. But you can also enjoy any given moment, enjoying a beautiful day, or being onstage connecting with musicians and the audience. It feels good to get back to the music.”