Jazz: In the name of the father

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The Independent Culture
RAVI COLTRANE has not exactly made life easy for himself by playing the tenor saxophone. At the very least he prompts unreasonable expectation of raising the sunken treasures of his late father's memory. John Coltrane was the finest saxophonist jazz has seen, yet his son appears unperturbed by the weight he carries on his shoulders, aware of his limitations yet confident of his abilities.

Careful to make all the right career moves, he was signed by a major label last year and by then had enough experience to avoid making Moving Pictures an anticlimax. With a surname like his it was all he could have realistically hoped for.

Too often over the past 15 years, young musicians have had major-label status thrust upon them in advance of artistic maturity. With playing times of CDs clocking in at about 70 minutes, that's more than enough rope to hang yourself with, and most do. With numbing regularity, the highly publicised recording debuts of aspiring young "jazz greats" have turned out to be no more than an invitation to hop aboard their learning curve as they struggle to find a musical identity among their various assimilated influences.

In contrast, Ravi Coltrane bided his time, and it was not until he was 32 that he struck out on his own. By then he had been circling jazz's centre stage for a while, with Elvin Jones's Jazz Machine, with former M-Base experimenter Steve Coleman, with star saxophonist David Murray, with drummer Rashid Ali and with pianist Billy Taylor. In between times he added to the character-building experiences necessary to forge his own style by trying his hand at leading his own groups.

So, with all his loopholes seemingly plugged, Coltrane Junior has set a course to become his own man. His appearance on Wednesday night at London's Jazz Cafe showed him balanced between a recovery of jazz's past and the stirrings of an individual musical personality.

Thematically, his compositions were often no more than an arabesque to set mood, key and tempo from which he produced long entanglements of notes that scrupulously avoided cliche. But the absence of urban rawness at the expense of collegiate control lent an arm's-length quality to his improvisations. Despite the open structures, modal harmonies and rhythmic shifts, he remained within the hard bop axis defined in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

Regrettably, this idiom has been so depleted by the ravenous enquiry of musicians 40 years ago - not least by his father - that there is very little left to be added. Ravi Coltrane needs to create an original context for his playing that does not place him in competition with jazz's distinguished past or place him in the crowded cul-de-sac of today's young retro foot soldiers.

Perhaps the sense of actuality that great musicians serve long apprenticeships to achieve, and which does seem within his grasp, could be better fulfilled. And while this destination marked the point of departure for the father, lifting his playing further, it should certainly not diminish the achievements of the son.

Although Ravi Coltrane is so far unable to avoid a similarity of concept and execution shared by the many young players who support similar sources of stylistic inspiration, his playing does possess intelligence, lucidity and an ease of execution which suggest riches further down the road.