Their Trane keeps on rolling

Boston Globe, September 21, 2008

In January 2007, a tragic two-day stretch saw the passing of two immense and influential figures in jazz. First, Alice Coltrane – widow of John Coltrane and a major pianist and composer in her own right – died from liver cancer. The next day, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker succumbed, at 57, to leukemia.

To Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, the losses registered with special poignancy. As tenor players, they were colleagues of Brecker and disciples of John Coltrane, with a particular taste for Coltrane’s free-minded, spirit-drenched late period. With Brecker, they had formed a group, dubbed Saxophone Summit, to study and celebrate that moment in music. Their 2004 album, “Gathering of Spirits,” featured kindred souls Cecil McBee on bass, Billy Hart on drums, and Phil Markowitz on piano behind the fiery three-horn front line.

This year the Summit returns, with two nights next week at Regattabar, Wednesday and Thursday, in support of a new album, “Seraphic Light.” In Brecker’s spot is none other than Ravi Coltrane – son of John and Alice and a tenor player who has developed his voice at his own pace, largely evading the assumptions one might make from his parentage.

The new album finds the group picking up where it left off, exploring what one might call the gentler side of late Coltrane – incandescent ballads that balance deep melodicism and aggressive experimentation – through Trane’s own songs and new compositions, including one, “Message to Mike,” in tribute to their late partner.

In separate phone conversations from their homes in the Hudson Valley and eastern Pennsylvania respectively, Lovano and Liebman say that the deaths of Brecker and Alice Coltrane left them with no doubt that the project should go on – and not just because they had contractual obligations. “There was never any doubt that we would continue, if only as a tribute to Mike,” Liebman says.

As for recruiting Ravi Coltrane, it was not a grand gesture as much as it was a logical progression: Already, during Brecker’s illness, the group had worked with him as well as Chris Potter and Joshua Redman as substitutes. Of course, his presence cannot help but underscore the Summit’s creative direction. “The music we play, especially on this record, Alice was a big part of it,” Lovano says. “And Ravi grew up with Alice.”

Genealogy aside, Saxophone Summit is no mere tribute band, but a conscious effort by a group of master musicians to tap the creative energy that made the late 1960s an intensely fertile and emancipated period in jazz – often to the point of apparent chaos, but never lacking in soul. It was a special time, no doubt affected by war and social transformations, but also setting out artistic models that can resonate today.

“It’s been a beautiful project,” Lovano says of the Summit, “with an amazing repertoire drawing from Coltrane’s late period, with the collectiveness and spirit that music evoked. We all came up digging that energy and collaboration that was not only in Coltrane’s band, but that whole period.”

For all the attention the triple-sax lineup garners, Lovano says much of the burden falls on the rhythm section. “They have to have a lot of power and strength and be as creative and free as possible. You have to have a sense of orchestration and not just the role of your own instrument.”

Those are veteran traits, and McBee and Hart, respected elders in the music, fit the bill. The energy they bring – recalling crucial Coltrane sidemen like drummer Elvin Jones – pushes the horns to greater heights, accentuating the music’s total impact.

“It’s very appealing, and it knocks people out,” says Liebman, who has some perspective on the matter, having played with Jones for a spell in the ’70s. “They want to see guys going for the jugular. You can’t be walking in the daisies when you’ve got Billy Hart playing drums the way he plays.”

As for the front line, the summiteers say they are constantly learning from one another. “You’re standing next to two wonderful saxophonists in the line of battle, like Patton and MacArthur,” Liebman says. “You look to the left, and you look to the right, and you’re hearing things, musically and experience-wise, that you’ve never heard.”

But if there’s one trait that Saxophone Summit displays above all, it’s the feeling of devotion and surrender that permeates their sound. Jazz today is incredibly diverse, with many cross-genre influences and players from all origins; but that breadth can sometimes occlude the music’s depth, the dimension of spiritual search that continues to animate some players and listeners.

The summiteers are still, proudly, on that journey.

“It’s like going and chanting `Hare Krishna,”’ Liebman says. “As soon as you enter that temple, you are already taken somewhere. We’re dealing in that vocabulary.”