Ravi Coltrane - making his own way in family business
As the fiftieth anniversary of John Coltrane’s landmark album, A Love Supreme came round earlier this month, the late saxophonist’s son, Ravi, had another reminder, as if he needed one, of his jazz lineage.
In the time since that recording was released in February 1965, Coltrane senior’s already major reputation has continued to grow so that he’s now one of jazz’s great iconic figures, a musician whose influence is incalculable and whose recordings continue to thrill and move new generations of listeners. Young musicians pore over his compositions such as Giant Steps, a rite of passage for jazz players the world over, and marvel at, even try to replicate, his sound on tenor and soprano saxophone while glorying in his gargantuan creativity.
For Ravi Coltrane, however, it was not this John Coltrane but another one, John Coltrane Junior, who led him to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I grew up with music, of course,” says the quiet spoken Coltrane down the line from New York. “My mother [pianist and composer Alice Coltrane] played music every day at home and I listened to the kind of pop music in the 1970s that we listened to socially, with friends, and to some music that my friends thought I was off my head to give the time of day, symphonic music. They used to tease me about that mercilessly because it wasn’t cool. But although I dug jazz because it was around me, I wasn’t thinking about playing it back then.”
The young Ravi, who was named for one of his father’s heroes and friends, Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, harboured ambitions, although he laughs about them now, of going into the film business. He was always playing with cameras and he inherited a love of gadgets from his mother. He also read Stephen King novels avidly, visualising the action and plots, and he loved the soundtracks that John Williams created for Star Wars, Jaws et al. For a time he considered studying the clarinet he played in his high school marching band to a serious, classical level. But jazz wasn’t on the agenda.
Then his and the family’s world imploded. John Junior was killed in a car accident and Ravi, just a year younger, was shattered.
“He was seventeen and it was such a huge shock,” says Coltrane. “I didn’t know what to do with myself and whatever I’d been thinking about doing with my life, I just set that aside and wasn’t really thinking about anything for several years, actually. I’d listen to records, keep reading my Stephen King books, go out drinking and trying to chase girls. Then I’d start thinking about what we are doing here. Why was my brother put on this earth only to die at such a young age? And after a while I started going to my father’s music and it began to affect me in deeper ways than it had when my mum had played his records to me.”
His father having died when Ravi was two years old, Ravi had no real memory of the man whose music was now offering him comfort. Through listening to this huge catalogue of recordings he began to feel as if he might now know his father, who he was, what his ambitions were, what his life must have been like and especially the range of his ideas and creativity. And the more he listened, the more he was drawn to his father’s instrument.
“It was like he pulled me to the saxophone,” says Coltrane. “His music spoke to me. I’d always been aware that music was the family business but I’d never really thought of my father as this major figure because where we lived at the time, the San Fernando Valley, felt like a bit of a cultural vacuum, certainly compared to New York where I was born and where I moved in 1991. So, I started playing the saxophone and pretty soon I realised that, famous father or not, you have to put in the hours, the years really, to become a jazz musician. There are no short cuts and there are legions of great players who have contributed to the development of this wonderful tradition.”
There may be no short cuts but for the son of John Coltrane there was at least one musician ready to provide a leg-up onto the jazz scene, Elvin Jones, the drummer who provided the unstoppable momentum in John Coltrane’s classic quartet and who to make this one of, if not the leading band in jazz during the 1960s. Coltrane Junior has mixed feelings about Jones’ intervention.
“It was quite funny how it happened in a way,” he says. “First of all, Elvin’s wife, Keiko, called and asked me if I’d be ready and available to play some gigs in a couple of years. I said, Of course, although I wasn’t really sure, to be honest. Then she said, Well are you available to play some concerts now? And at that point Elvin came on the phone and I was trying to tell him that I’d only been playing for a few years and I wasn’t ready but he said, I want to help you get ready. And you don’t say no to Elvin Jones.”
Misgivings aside, in the spring of 1991 Coltrane set off as the new saxophonist with Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine and had what he describes as “a beautiful experience and at the same time, a frightening experience.”
For a young man of twenty-six who had lived a comparatively sheltered life in California, going on tour with a road warrior such as Jones was both a complete culture shock and a learning curve so steep it was almost vertical. Suddenly he was visiting new countries, sometimes a new country every day, and when Jones gave him his famous grin on the bandstand, Ravi had to take a solo – no matter how scared he felt.
“I absolutely hated it, standing there blowing away, hoping what I was playing made sense and knowing it probably didn’t,” he says. “But the up side was, as soon as I finished my solo I could go to the side of the stage and watch Elvin. And that was fantastic. There I was, standing onstage with a guy who brought something to jazz that didn’t exist before. The sound he could make with a brush on a cymbal was incredible. He was a real master and a great leader. I learned a lot from him about leading a band, not the least of these lessons being patience, but to go out on the road with him at that time, for me, was premature.”
Having survived the inevitable comparisons with his father before he was anything like properly prepared as a musician, Coltrane has gone on to achieve respect and success in his own right. As well as playing with Elvin Jones, he has moved in another of his father’s orbits by signing to his current label, Blue Note, for whom his father recorded his classic Blue Train album before moving on to the Impulse! label that documented his later, often volcanic work.
“I feel very fortunate to have been able to feel connections to history in respect of Elvin and Blue Note,” he says. “I’m very appreciative of being part of something that carries such weight. But I’ve never wanted to exploit my name. I just wanted to get out there and carve my own path and now I’m forty-nine I find myself leading a band of musicians from the next generation who will carry this music forward.”
He has been working with pianist David Virelles, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Johnathan Blake for three years or more now, so they know each other pretty well.
“These young men energise me so much that I can’t really describe what they bring to the band,” he says. “They all write music and they can all play like you wouldn’t believe and the wonderful thing about them is that they can really communicate, both with each other on the bandstand and with the audience. It’ll be an energetic show that we bring to Scotland, I can guarantee that, and I know I’ll need to be at the top of my game to keep up with them.”
The Ravi Coltrane Quartet appears with Konrad Wiszniewski & Euan Stevenson’s New Focus at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh on Sunday, March 1 and Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy on Monday, March 2.
From The Herald, February 28, 2015.