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I was always a music fan," Ravi Coltrane says. "I'd get home from school and I'd go right to Mom's station wagon — that was when you could play the stereo without the car key. So I'd sit in there with my cassettes, listening to music all day after school. Just sitting there by myself, quietly listening to music. That always felt natural to me."
The music he listened to? While he was into the Beatles and James Brown and whatever was being played on pop-radio stations during the '70s, he also tuned in to classical music and Charlie Parker. But it wasn't until after his brother, John Jr., died in a car accident in 1982 that he really started paying attention to the music of his father: legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, who'd passed away when Ravi was two years old.
Left with a giant void inside by the loss of his brother, Coltrane found that jazz helped filled that space.
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"When the jazz thing hit me, I felt like, 'I'm a fan of music and I'm a lover of music,' but there was something else," Coltrane remembers. "Sort of like a pull, being in a tractor beam or something. It felt like I needed to not just be a listener, but also to really try to look at his music from a player's perspective and try to learn the music."
The albums from his father's time with Atlantic Records kind of shocked him, he admits. "I say shocked, meaning there was this very big kind of exploration of musical harmonic possibilities," he explains. "I'd never heard music like that before. I had some nerdy tastes, but I always knew I was just a fan of very creative music. And when I heard 'Giant Steps' for the first time, when I heard 'Countdown' for the first time — when I really listened to it — yeah, it kind of blew my mind. It definitely kind of changed me."
His mother, pianist Alice Coltrane, never pushed music on Ravi or his siblings. Thanks to her restraint, he was able to fall in love with music on his own, fall so hard that the 46-year-old Coltrane is still playing music today. "Nobody ever said, 'Hey, you've got to do this,' or 'This is the best music in the world, so why are you listening to that stuff on the radio? Come over here and listen to this jazz.' I never got that, fortunately," he says.
Although Coltrane started playing clarinet and soprano saxophone as a teenager, he stopped for four years after his brother's death. He took up the instrument — both soprano and tenor — again when he enrolled at the California Institute of Art and wanted to play the kind of music that his father had played. "I was looking to learn how to improvise and to play jazz," Coltrane says. "I could barely play two notes when I started there."
But it didn't take him long to get up to speed. In his twenties, he got a chance to work with Elvin Jones, the drummer in his father's quartet. In his mid-thirties, he began releasing albums under his own name, starting with his 1998 debut, Moving Pictures.
Spirit Fiction is his sixth record, and his first on Blue Note. He wasn't really thinking about New York's Half Note when he recorded the duet "Spring & Hudson" (named after the intersection where the jazz club used to be), with drummer E.J. Strickland for the album. It was more about how he was facing Strickland while they were playing: "You get another type of communication," Coltrane says. "You start to anticipate. You can see them lift the stick up. You can see when they're going to go into a press roll or a fill. You start incorporating that in real time to what you're doing."
And it wasn't too far from what John Coltrane had done when he played a twenty-minute duet with Jones during "One Down, One Up" at the Half Note in 1965.
"You see photographs of that club," Coltrane explains, "and they're literally just facing each other. They're on the tiniest stage you can ever imagine. The stage sat above the bar, and the audience sat in a circle around the bar area. The musicians literally just faced each other. You can really hear that. You can really hear how every phrase — the visual element of playing a duet with someone you literally face, it enters the music. It gets into the phrasing, the pacing and timing of it."
While recording Spirit Fiction, the musicians would sometimes get bored with what was planned for that session, so they would record spontaneous pieces to limber up. Two songs — "Roads Cross" and "Cross Roads" — resulted from that, essentially live mash-ups in which Coltrane and Strickland are doing one thing against what pianist Luis Perdomo and bassist Drew Gress are doing. "We're trying to stay independent, but at the same time we're trying to react to each other as well and give it a wholeness," Coltrane explains. "You can find these meaningful coincidences of how things blend together. When you let things just kind of happen, you can stumble upon some interesting combinations and things."
While Spirit Fiction, which was released last month, features the same quartet that Coltrane has played with over the last decade, some of the cuts are with the quintet from 2000's From the Round Box, which features trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus and drummer Eric Harland.
"The two groups had an interesting contrast to each other, kind of an interesting balance between this working band who's been working together for close to ten years and doing a lot of these freer, spontaneous kind of listening pieces," Coltrane says. "There's a great benefit to playing in a band with the same guys for ten years," he adds, "that type of listening when you know what the next guy is going to play at every moment, every beat. And we're all listening with that in mind. That can be its own direction."
After Coltrane produced the quartet sessions, he brought on Joe Lovano — part of the Saxophone Summit that includes Coltrane and Dave Liebman — to produce the quintet sessions of Spirit Fiction. "He understands the time and the momentum needed to have a successful day at the studio," says Coltrane. "I was doing the quartet recording earlier in the year, in February, and I went right from one of those quartet sessions to a Sax Summit session. They were literally back to back in the same studio. The energy of the sessions I was producing — I always have a billion things that I'm trying to do. More than half don't work, and you're running around and losing your mind and stuff."
Lovano, whom Coltrane has known since the late '80s, helped him find his way and made everything move like clockwork. "They get in there," Coltrane says, "they get what they need and they get out."
And they got us Spirit Fiction.