The son of John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane plays at Ann Arbor’s Blue Llama Jazz Club, April 12-13
The jazz canon has, since its early days, been populated by legendary musicians, many of whom’s sons and daughters have followed in their footsteps, some more closely than others.
Family connections may be easily recognized with musicians like New Orleans patriarch Ellis Marsalis and his sons Wynton and Branford. But then there’s the case of Don Cherry, whose harmolodic jazz bears little resemblance to his daughter Neneh Cherry’s dance-pop success with the Malcolm McLaren-produced “Buffalo Stance.”
Ravi Coltrane is a supremely talented musician and 2016 Grammy winner whose family ties run deeper than virtually any of his second-generation peers. His father, John Coltrane, the legendary artist, embodied the heart and soul of jazz and his body of work ranged from the intimate spirituality of quartet recordings like “A Love Supreme” to live sets in which he and fellow saxophonist Pharoah Sanders played free-jazz numbers that would go on for nearly an hour.
Ravi’s mother, Alice Coltrane also left behind an extraordinary, if less widely known, body of work: secular collaborations with an extended family of legendary musicians, spiritual chants recorded during her two decades leading an ashram after her husband’s death, and her celebrated return to the secular jazz world with 2004’s “Translinear Light,” produced by Ravi and released on Impulse! Records. Ravi’s cousin, Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, is an experimental hip-hop artist and producer who’s collaborated with Kendrick Lamar and Erykah Badu.
Ravi, has created his own artistic legacy, with a 25-year recording career that’s covered a wide range of jazz subgenres. Born in 1965, two years before his father’s death, and raised in Los Angeles, the saxophonist has recorded more than three dozen albums as a sideman, many of them with Steve Coleman and other members of the loosely knit avant-gardist M-Base collective. He has also released a half-dozen albums as a bandleader on prestigious labels like Blue Note and Savoy Jazz, the most recent being 2012’s “Spirit Fiction.”
Last year in a special moment in February, Ravi Coltrane performed at the Grammys after winning the award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, an honor previously bestowed upon legendary figures like Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.
Ravi and his current outfit — which features Jonathan Blake on drums, Dezron Douglas on bass and Glenn Zaleski on piano — have been playing together for the past four years, and are maintaining an active touring schedule.
Before he plays four shows in two days at Ann Arbor’s Blue Llama Jazz Club, April 12-13, Toledo City Paper asked Ravi some questions during a recent interview.
You recently won a Grammy for your solo on the title track. How many takes had you recorded before the one that ended up on the record?
I think we did it twice, and I’m not sure which of those takes was used on the album. But most of the things on the record, we didn’t do more than one or two takes. It is a very free record [laughs], and the idea wasn’t so much to get a perfect take but to express oneself to the best of one’s ability. But, you know, you got what you got sometimes. I think Jack and Matthew especially, they were very content to not beat a dead horse, and if they felt the take was fine, they were ready to move on to the next piece.
Did that solo stand out for you? Did you go home and say, “Hey, I nailed it” or did it just feel like one more solo at the time?
Well, it was actually a very difficult record date for me. I wasn’t very happy with any of the things that I played on the record, to be perfectly honest. It’s just one of those things; you can be in the studio and feel good about what’s happening musically, or you can have the opposite experience.
I wish that I had more situations where I’d gotten home after the recording saying, “Yeah, that was awesome, we nailed it today.” But most of the time, yeah, you’re working toward very specific goals, and you don’t often reach them.
And he said those losses made him really want to move into a realm of expression that was deeper and more honest. Did a similar thing happen to you? Has your music been influenced by personal losses?
Well, our lives are totally reshaped by losses like that. I mean, to lose a parent, that completely reshapes your world.
It’s one of the most profound and heavy experiences that we all ultimately face, and yeah, it’s like you finally are living in a new world, you turn a corner and you can’t ever take it back around. With Steven, it was really clear how his mother’s passing affected him, and he was able to immediately make those sorts of creative shifts and go deeper into his work and his expression. And losing my mother was one of the most difficult things that I had to deal with. I had already lost my father at two years of age. I lost my older brother in a car accident when he was 17, I was 16.
And my mother’s death was completely unexpected. I had a conversation with her that morning and we were talking about when we were going to put these recording sessions together. We were finishing an album that she had been working on. You know, it definitely changes you a lot. It can tear you down and you have to kind of rebuild yourself up. It makes you go a little bit deeper to try to figure out what the true meaning is.
So what are you working on now that you’re really excited about, and that the rest of us are going to hear?
Well, you know, I’m trying to continue composing — trying to make more steps there — and I’ve been trying to play more than just the tenor. I’ve been working on the sopranino, and I’ve been playing more b-flat clarinet and flute. You know, I hope to start messing around with the alto pretty soon, so I feel like I’m trying to get back into a sort of a woodwind-centric approach. And I’m working on a record.