Jazz: First steps for the giant's heir
Tuesday 20 October 1998
QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL LONDON
THE FIRST date of Ravi Coltrane's first European tour as a leader was a convincing success. His band was loaded with energy; the tunes, largely lifted from his new Moving Pictures album (RCA Victor), worked well in a live context; and the Queen Elizabeth Hall was busy.
Ravi Coltrane is possibly the only jazz musician in the world who could fill a concert hall with people there largely to hear someone else. It must have been particularly satisfying, then, to have attracted a young audience who knew who he was, and that nobody asked for Giant Steps when he returned for an encore.
Ravi Coltrane's father was John Coltrane. He died when Ravi was two and Ravi didn't study jazz seriously until he was 21. When he did, he moved from clarinet to the tenor and soprano saxophones (his father's instruments of choice), and played with his father's former drummer, Elvin Jones. It must have been a bit like having Muhammad Ali for a dad and deciding to have a crack at heavyweight boxing for a living. You could dance like a flyweight all night, but walk into a single jab and that name would suddenly feel as heavy as a rock.
Between 1958 and his death in 1967, John Coltrane was the greatest. His technical facility on the instrument was superhuman and he was able to tame the most savage of chord sequences. He was also jazz's premier philosopher, bringing a whole new realm of expression into the music. If jazz began by expressing the emotions of the whorehouse and the street, John Coltrane added the wonderment of the celestial. Today, there's a black church in America where he is worshipped as a saint. So... it is a real tough act to follow.
Coltrane Jr has never sounded more like himself. He produced a glorious tone on the tenor instrument: light but burnished, hinting at a love of Joe Henderson. His band, an acoustic quintet with trumpeter Ralph Alessi joining him on the front line, played a music which grew out of the loose but slightly cerebral approach of Miles Davis's late-Sixties group, with a dose of M-Base contemporary funk (learnt from previous collaborations with Steve Coleman) thrown in for measure.
Both these approaches share an oblique, undemonstrative character, so this music was never going to be completely engaging all the time. Built into every solo was a certain amount of time for fiddling around, searching for inspiration, hoping the rhythm section would pick up on something and set off some sparkling group improvisation. They often did; and when things took off (on McCoy Tyner's "Search for Peace", for instance) the results were good enough to make you forget Ravi Coltrane's oddly personal musical legacy.
A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper
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