Q&A: Jazzman Ravi Coltrane still moved by the spirit

Ravi Coltrane (Photo courtesy of Ravicoltrane.com)

By Jonathan Sindelman

At 47, Ravi Coltrane now carries within him a musical legacy that encompasses a special combination of history, family, and a uniquely powerful voice cultivated entirely on his own.  A testament to the time and patience required for any musician to unlock and access the inner secrets from a great tradition of music can be illustrated by the more than 30 recordings Ravi made as a sideman before finally emerging in 1997 with Moving Pictures (RCA).  It seems that on average we hear from Ravi every 2-3 years, and each statement continues to be underscored by the spirit of pursuit, bringing to the equation a distinctly open and playful quality before any sounds reach our ears – ever thoughtful, and always exuding a lightness of being.  A newly formed quartet will arrive in Seattle for a pair of dates at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley on July 31st.

His new release signals a debut for Blue Note, entitled “Spirit Fiction”, and features two different groups, one of which can be referred to as his working band for nearly ten years – that being comprised of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and EJ Strickland on drums.  The other group became a reunion of sorts, having once recorded together on Ravi’s sophomore effort, “From The Round Box” (RCA), conceived with longtime collaborator Ralph Alessi on trumpet, along with pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus, and Eric Harland on drums. Produced by Joe Lovano (who also makes a guest appearance on one track), “Spirit Fiction” as an album proves itself as being well on the way toward becoming one of this year’s best.  Zero percent of airspace is wasted, as each piece comes bookended with a pronounced economy of physical time.  As a whole the album offers a feast tightly packed with arresting performances that speak to the depth of each ensemble, all of which are captured as uncompromisingly fresh, engineered and recorded so well to the effect that time really seems to fly right out the window.

I recently had the distinct privilege of catching up with Ravi during a break on tour.  Throughout our conversation we managed to cover many topics, ranging from his youth as an impressionable student of music, to the distillation of associations and relationships with musicians from all walks of life – many of whom have continued to overlap through the years in both music and life.  We forayed into the conception and realization of his latest work, the assembling of a new quartet, and then of course touched on a few memories with his mother, Alice, which also led to some discussion around the man behind the legacy – John Coltrane. 

SMI: Hello there, Ravi?

Coltrane: Yes.

SMI: This is Jonathan Sindelman from the Seattle Music Insider, how are you? 

Coltrane: Jonathan, how’s it going?

SMI: I’m great, and I’m so thrilled to have this opportunity to talk with you.

Coltrane: Thanks so much, I appreciate the support.

SMI: Hopefully everything is running on time for you today.

Coltrane: Yes, so far so good.

SMI:  Excellent, and in what area am I finding you in today?

Coltrane:  I’m in Brooklyn, if that’s what you mean, but in what area of my home?  I’m in my living room, by the upright piano.

*both laugh*

And you?

SMI: I’m actually at my home in Seattle at the moment.

Coltrane:  Oh, groovy, how’s the weather out there?

SMI: It’s been kind of a funny summer, up and down with rain and sun.  We always seem to get a mix of everything here.

Coltrane:  Ah yes, I know Seattle!  I know that weather, and it can be pretty unique.

SMI: It’s great to be catching up with you at this particular time, on the auspices of the new record, your first for Blue Note and a special event for many reasons.  I’ve read a bit about what led you toward making the record with this label.  Before we get in to that, would you mind if I started by asking you a few questions about the path you’ve been on musically, as well as in life, and going back in time a little bit?

Coltrane: Sure, no problem.

SMI: Excellent.  Knowing that you are originally from New York, and then made a move to Los Angeles, my question is rooted back in time when we look at different jazz musicians who had their start in different areas of the U.S. – like in Philadelphia, such as your father, or Elvin Jones coming to jazz from Michigan, and Oliver Nelson from St. Louis, et cetera. When looking at music as more of a social statement, it would be great to hear how you’ve connected with musicians from your beginnings all the way through to present day, especially when considering the colloquialism for music as a language and how it pertains to a lineage or history.

Coltrane: For me I’m very happy to say that I’m a New Yorker.  Even though I didn’t grow up here, I’ve spent more of my life here in New York.  I was born in ’65, and by the time we came to L.A. in ’71, I was 6.  I moved back to New York in ’91, after grade school, and after my time at Cal Arts studying music, this was my first real opportunity to move back to New York, and I took it.  I’ve been here awhile, and I’ve always appreciated that there are some colloquial roots – how people approach this music, and the energy.  That was the one thing I noticed a huge difference in, from my early trips to New York – as an adult I’d being going there on my summer breaks from Cal Arts.  I think the first time I came on my own was about ’87 or so.  I stayed for a month, the month of July, which was spent going to jam sessions, going to clubs and meeting musicians.  Rashied Ali would take me in.  I would stay with him in the summertime, and I was energized.  I’d get back to Los Angeles and get ready for another semester at school, and discovered I was just amped (laughs).  You know, walking fast and talking faster.  I feel that energy still exists here, but at that time it was so obvious to me about the way people played.  That’s not to suggest there wasn’t a passion for music in a similar way outside of New York, but it was definitely something very unique to the energy and the spirit of the musicians here.

SMI:  Well, what amazes me is to think about the road you’ve been traveling and then listening to your music now.  It’s evident you have a line of wonderful records that tell the story, from the major label debut with Moving Pictures, and then later with the launch of your own label, RKM Music, which seems to come across as a much more raw, almost back-to-roots approach that brings back the days of Rudy Van Gelder. 

Coltrane:  Totally, completely.

SMI: One thing that continues to inspire me, especially after hearing the new recording “Spirit Fiction,” is the social aspect, as it pertains to the relationships you’ve developed with artists over the years.  When you reconnected as a group after ten years with James Genus, Geri Allen, Eric Harland, and then your longtime collaborator Ralph Alessi, after having done “From the Round Box,” one of the things that went through my mind is the phenomenon of how some people seem to come in and out of your life, from near and far to connect musically.  In this case it’s like friends you’ve had for decades, some of whom you may or may not have seen in a long time, but then it might only take a couple of minutes to catch up on the stuff of life.  To do this in the language of music it would seem to suspend all time and space.

Coltrane: Yes, that’s the beauty of music, you know what I mean?  It really like being a master of time and space.  I have known all these people for a very long time.  In the case of the quintet that recorded “From The Round Box”, that group, which included Geri and Ralph, since that recording was made in 2000, I’ve had many opportunities to play with Geri and Ralph.  Ralph is one of my closest friends, so we’re hanging out, drinking beers, watching sports and that kind of stuff, in addition to the music-making.  That continuity exists in all of these very personalized and unique ways with that group.  James Genus is on my “Mad 6” record, the record I produced, “Translinear Light,” and I introduced him to his wife.  He played in my touring band during the early 2000’s, but in this case I hadn’t played with him in such a long time, you know.  He’s been playing on SNL for a long time, but literally just getting back together, we didn’t really rehearse.  We played at one gig, but the way it happened is that we had an opportunity to either do a formal rehearsal before the recording, or do this gig, and I said well let’s just do the gig.   Let that be the rehearsal.  It was at a place called the Zinc bar here in New York.  We literally didn’t even look at the charts.  We got on the stage, and I didn’t make any announcements to the audience like, “Hey, by the way, we’re rehearsing…” So, as far as the audience was concerned, we were there to play, and that’s basically what we did.  But it was really an interesting way to reconvene, you know, it was really sort of an interesting way to just kind of focus the energy on the center, aiming for the center.  It wasn’t about approaching the song and saying it should go a certain way, like I want this to happen on the drums here, and you can do this at the bridge, but don’t play that groove here, just straight, et cetera. There’s no time for that.  It was just like this is the song, and it starts here, and then we go!   It allowed everyone to kind of go into their most natural form of residence in regards to dealing with that music.  We were finding a lot of common denominators, the common ground, and without a lot of discussion.  So yes, it was really great, and it does sort of break down all those barriers of time when you can just get on the stand with people and have the music develop that way. 

SMI: I’m excited to hear you talk about Ralph, because I sensed that closeness between the two of you, even on “From The Round Box,” like when you started playing “The Blessing” by Ornette…

Coltrane: Oh yeah!  (laughs) 

SMI:  I was just coming out of college at that point, and as a student of music that was one of my fondest memories – actually putting on “From The Round Box.”  It was that track which impacted me because it would keep me sitting there, listening and pondering the suspension of time.  From the introduction of the piece, the way roles were cast between yourself and Ralph, you guys were referencing the spirit of Ornette’s early quartets, and then suddenly you would fall into your own thing, yet retain so much melody, which is what remains so striking about Ornette’s music.  It’s just amazing how you can weave your way through all of the music, all the way through to the present moment…

Coltrane: You just said a word that I think really hits this on the head – “weave.”  That weaving thing.  Some people say “carving” – you can carve your way, or weave your way… You know, it’s like you’re dealing with this material, but as you’re engaging it, and trying to guide and shape it, it’s really guiding and shaping you.  It really is.  It becomes this kind of connection, the energy and emotion of it.  That thing, that Ornette thing – it’s like our love of Ornette just really goes without saying, you know.  If you love something and you know it, and it’s a part of what you do to some degree, then that’s the thing that starts to propel you forward.  We didn’t talk about anything, I think we were warming up and getting levels, and somebody started playing “The Blessing.”  I heard this and just said, “Okay, roll tape, we’re going to record it!”  The give and take with melody, and the trading of phrases with Ralph and Geri, once again it was a situation where the music was kind of pulling us toward this place where we’re guiding it, but it’s directing us.  It’s leading us and we’re following it.  We’re pushing it.  It’s kind of self-propelling in a lot of ways.  But great music does that.  Ornette’s music has that very unique power about it, you know. 

SMI: It’s wonderful to hear from you about this reverence, obviously within the group, and to see how it all speaks to your relationship with Ralph.  That depth in the relationship really comes through, it’s really striking in pieces like that.  The original music is wonderful, and Ralph brought in a really great piece like “Who Wants Ice Cream”.  You have so much going on with this album, and each piece stands as a truly concise statement, which is one of the most compelling aspects about the recording – making the listener feel as if they were observing a series of paintings in a gallery.  Maybe I’m getting overly nostalgic in saying this, but it kind of brings back the early days of Ornette, Monk, and if we’re getting down to one side of an LP, Bird and Diz.  Just the way it was produced, and that freshness, that sort of feeling for how so little is imposed.  Like you were saying – let’s just roll tape, let just do the gig, et cetera.  So inspiring!

Coltrane:  Right.  That era of music making, those people that you mentioned – they are our guides.  They are our teachers and our heroes.  We try to emulate them in ways that are not surface ways, but more in ways so we can personalize ourselves.  It’s more like emulating the method than the specifics of what they did.  We’re not trying to be them.  We need to be ourselves, though we’ve taken so much from the spirit of their work.  The spirit of the greats that came before us – Ornette, Bird, the Miles bands, particularly the 60’s quintet, John Coltrane Quartet, Ornette Coleman Quartet – their methods, their openness.  It’s the idea of structure not being this thing that confines the music, but can really deliver the music in a specific way.  We always try to emulate that.  We learn to play that way.  On the record they may do it one way, but we’re not going to do it that way.  We’re going to do it in whatever way feels right today, whatever way feels right at this moment.  They may be playing the form as AABA on the record, but we’re not going to do that because it doesn’t serve us in this context.  It never became this thing about “This is what jazz is,” and “This is what jazz isn’t,” “This is how it’s done.” That was never a component.  It’s more like, “Let’s see what we could find; let’s see how this plays out.”  Staying within the spirit of pursuit you start discovering things.  You start finding things.

SMI:  To be a fan of the music, to experience the joy and just having this love of listening to records, and then come across one like “Spirit Fiction,” where it totally speaks to the joy of using the studio as an instrument.  It’s really a gift to your fans, not only for the opportunity to catch up with where you are on your musical journey, but also how you’ve continually invested in the studio as an art form.  It’s particularly inspiring with this new record.

Coltrane: Thanks man, thank you.

SMI: Of course a point of curiosity and interest is how you recorded “Cross Roads,” and “Roads Cross,” as well as the title track “Spirit Fiction.” It’s really interesting to consider the techniques which are kind of an adaptation of maybe a few other records in the past.

Coltrane:  The track “Spirit Fiction” is a classic mash-up, if you will.  Literally one recording on top of another.  There were no edits, no assembling in the process of that piece.  The way it went down was that me and the piano player were late that day.  The drummer and bass player were already there.  I was on the phone and I said, “Go ahead and record some duets, we’re going to mash up some stuff after.” We recorded some mash-ups on the last record I did, “Blending Times,” but we didn’t use any of them.  It’s just one of those things where either it works or it doesn’t, you know what I mean?  It has a vibe to it or it doesn’t have a vibe to it, where it feels organic and musical or it doesn’t.  It’s just something that you try, and something that you start imagining how these things might relate, how everything might coalesce.  My only instructions for those guys were to record about four or five different duets, change the energy of them, but be very consistent with whatever it was.  You know, maybe have one moment where there’s a transition, a kind of shift energy wise, but make them short – about two minutes, two and a half minutes, whatever.   That was the only information I gave them.  They recorded about four or five pieces.  I got into the studio with Luis, the piano player, and the only thing I knew about what they recorded was the length.  That was all I wanted to know.  We didn’t listen to what they recorded.  We just started rolling tape.  I only knew roughly when to begin and when to stop.  I was just looking at a stopwatch, basically, and recognizing that they just played approximately two minutes and forty five seconds, so let me make sure that I start winding this thing down before we get to 2:45, you know.  We recorded about five of those things, and three of them ended up working out great.  Originally I was going to put all three on the record.  “Spirit Fiction,” or what ended up being titled later as “Spirit Fiction,” was the third of the mash-ups that we did.  With the first two there really wasn’t anything happening there.  The third, fourth, and fifth – for some reason they had it, they just came together. 

You know, those moments are kind of fun.  They turn your ear in a way that you might not normally expect to hear things organized.  It was fun just seeing this come together.  “Roads Cross” and “Cross Roads” – those are live mash-ups, basically.  We have done this before to some extent, where one half of the band is doing something independent of the other, where your focus has to be very specific.  It’s like saying, “Okay, you and the drums go this way, and I’ll be going over here with the bass, piano, or whatever.”  I wanted to do this thing where we were playing two different tempos.  Half of us would play one tempo while the other half played another, which turned into half of the band starting slow and doing accelerando, speeding up gradually.  The other half of the band started very fast and then would slow down gradually.  At some point in the middle these tempos, as well as the pulse, would meet up.  Before that day in the studio we’d never really done anything like that.  I think we were doing a lot of different improvs, which included different ideas in addition to bringing in the written material and the planned material.  You know, I always allow a little room for just making stuff up on the fly.  Somebody might suggest something, or somebody might start riffing on something, and then we roll the tape and we record it.  But those improvs, they were completely spontaneous.  They weren’t discussed beyond who would be starting and stopping, what the tempos would be, and then the length.  The whole thing should take place over about three minutes, four minutes.  It surprised all of us, you know.  I’m literally just trying to listen to the drums – play with the drums, but listening to everyone in the same way as if we were playing any song.  I’m trying to get information from what’s happening in the piano and bass.  But we don’t talk about key centers, tonal centers, or any type of melodic direction, or any rhythmic direction either.  It’s literally just presenting an idea and just going with it – let’s see what happens.  After the first take, which was “Cross Roads,” we saw how this could work.  We spoke just a little bit about some of the things that were happening during the course of the first take, and then I suggested we do another one.  With the second take, “Roads Cross,” we had a bit more of an indication as to how this was going to play out, the fact that we would match tempos somewhere in the middle of it all.  I’m actually really excited about this track, because if you go and put it on, the very dead middle of that track is the exact moment where the tempos match! 

SMI: Wow.

Coltrane: Again, we were just pulling stuff out of our asses, so to speak. 

SMI:  I know we’re almost out of time, but if possible before you go I’d like to ask you a couple of quick questions.

Coltrane: Of course.

SMI: Knowing that you’re coming to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley at the end of the month with David Virelles on piano, Hans Glawichnig on bass, and of course EJ Strickland on drums, during this phase had you also spent time touring with Luis Perdomo and Drew Gress?

Coltrane: Yes, but at this time as a quartet we’re actually taking a little time off.  I have fortunately been able to work with them a bit this year.  Drew’s made a few gigs with me this year, and so has EJ, but as a unit we’re taking some time off.  The band has been together since 2003, and for all the pluses that you have as a working band, you do have some minuses, unfortunately.  There’s a certain amount of complacency that can start to affect things, and affect the music in both good ways and bad ways, you know?  I love all those guys, but it was definitely time for me to kind of get outside of my comfort zone a little bit, and those guys were the comfort zone – big time (laughs).  On one hand, we can pull off these things without a lot of discussion, and we know how people are going to react.  Most importantly we know how to play together.  You have to kind of stretch yourself a little bit more, and throwing yourself into situations where you don’t know how things are going to happen, or who is going to play what.  Changing it up tends to help with that.  So with this group it will actually be a new band.  I’ve played with all of these guys individually, but as a collective it will be a brand new group. 

SMI: Well I’m very much looking forward to seeing this lineup in action.  And lastly, if I could touch briefly on your family, I must tell you that I was so moved by the “Translinear Light” album you worked on with your mother, Alice. 

Coltrane:  Oh yes, beautiful.

SMI: Seeing how you took the reigns and organized much of the record, one of the questions that’s foremost in my mind surrounds the relationship you had with your mother.  After so many years of her being outside of the business of music, what would you say was the catalyst for making it happen with her?

Coltrane:  (Laughs).  Begging!  I begged her, and begged her, and begged her, and for a very long time.  I said, “Ma, please, let’s just go into the studio.  Let’s just record a few tunes.”  My mom, who was involved with so many things throughout her lifetime, she kind of said, “Well, I did that.  That was a part of my life before, now I’m doing other these other things.”  Music never left her, and that was probably one of the main reasons why I was always saying, “Hey, well let’s go record.”  It was because she still was this incredible, incredible musician.  She just chose not to work publically, or make recordings for commercial release.  She was very much devoted to her spiritual practice, her spiritual work.  That became primary for her.  She still always played great, and I knew that.  You know, I’d come to L.A. with my group, play at Catalina’s or something, and my mom would come down and I’d ask her to sit in, and a lot of times she would.  She would get up there and kill, you know.  She would just sound so incredible.  I was like, “Mom, please!  Can we just go into the studio and record a little bit?!”  So we actually recorded a little bit in 2000, I think, and this was when I was still signed to BMG.  Originally my mom said, “Okay, I’ll record, but it doesn’t need to be my record.  I don’t need to be the leader.”  And I agreed.  I said fine, it will just be like equally billed or something.  Originally the first idea was to do a trio record, with Jack Dejohnette, my mom, and myself.  It was my mom on organ, Jack on drums, and me on saxophones.  That’s how we got “Leo,” and we recorded a few other things.  Then my deal with BMG fell apart.  Nothing happened, but I owned that session.  We found ourselves waiting, and at that time Universal Music was constantly re-releasing stuff, at least back in those days.   They did a re-release of “A Love Supreme,” a special edition with a few extra takes on it.  The remaster was based on a new source tape they had found.  The company threw a giant party at Joe’s Pub and they wanted me to play.  My mom came out and she sat in, and then a week later everyone from Verve was asking, “Hey, would your mom like to do a record?  You know, she sounded so great.” I said, “Yes, I think she would be interested.  We’ve already started something and it would be great to finish it there at Verve.”  That’s kind of how it came together.  We recorded a good chunk of it in 2000, and then we did the rest of it in 2004.  And for me, that’s the highlight of my professional career – as a musician, as a producer – that record is the most important thing I’ve ever done, and may ever do.

SMI: Well it’s clear that you have a gift beyond music, which is to very lovingly approach the art of recording.  Through your efforts as a leader, with your mother, and then with your own label RKM, it’s clear that you have this touch with recordings that keeps the music so true to life.

Coltrane: Oh man, I appreciate that.  I didn’t know anyone was really paying that much attention (laughs).  I do appreciate it, man.  That’s what happens when you grow up and the studio is basically your playroom.  For me being in the studio, being behind a mixing board – that’s like playtime for me.   

SMI: The last question is a tough one to choose, but you just mentioned the re-release of “A Love Supreme”, which was a thrill to see come to light.  There was that alternate version of “Acknowledgement.”

Coltrane: Ah yes, that’s right.  December 10th with Archie Shepp, and also Art Davis played additional bass on that too.

SMI: And you had helped to discover this take, right?

Coltrane: Yes.  The tapes with my mother and my father, whenever they would finish a session, they were given roughs on a reel-to-reel in those days, and we had this closest that was just full of these reel-to-reel tapes.  Often a lot of those reference recordings were literally just made by Rudy after the session.  A lot of the stuff never made it to the vaults, into the Universal vaults, or ABC during that time.  So we would have things that they no longer had, which was ABC.  I keep saying ABC (laughs)…  The company was ABC, which turned into ABC-Paramount, and then GRP records, which then turned into Universal Music at some point.  Those came from our collection.  There have been a few things we felt should be heard, that we felt were consistent with the quality of existing releases, or release-worthy, if you will.  There are a lot of people out there who keep saying, “Well hey, we need to hear it all.  This is John Coltrane.  This is historic information.”  Again, you really have to consider how this is not what the artist wanted anyone to hear, you know what I mean?  It can be very delicate when looking at what we feel should or shouldn’t be released. 

SMI:  Well, thank you so much for your time.  I hope that when you come through town we’ll have a quick opportunity to say hello.

Coltrane: Please do, man, I’d appreciate it.  I apologize for cutting this short.  I have to jump in the car, run into town and do another interview.  If you need anything else feel free to check back in with me. 

SMI:  Ok!  Thank you and we’re looking forward to having you in Seattle. 

Coltrane: Thank you, Jonathan. Take care.

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