Jazz saxophonist, composer, music producer
Ravi Coltrane knows that comparisons to his legendary father are inevitable. Ravi is, of course, the son of John Coltrane, the saxophonist and composer whose music helped shape modern jazz and inspired generations of musicians. Though he could easily have been forgiven for choosing a different profession, Ravi Coltrane has jumped right into the fray, picking up the tenor and soprano saxophone—exactly the same instrument his father played—and making a career as a jazz musician. Though he recognizes the profound influence of his father's work on his own style of jazz, he also seeks to transcend it, and to create music that is uniquely his own.
By all accounts, Coltrane has succeeded. Critics praised his 2005 release In Flux, his fourth recording as bandleader, pointing to its creativity and maturity as evidence that he had, at age forty, come into his own as a musician. Reviewer Mark Turner of the All about Jazz Web site observed of the album, "With wisdom and respect he has admirably upheld his revered namesake yet also developed a distinct voice if one listens closely."
Born to a Music Legend
Ravi Coltrane was born on August 6, 1965, in Long Island, New York, the second of three sons of John and Alice Coltrane. He was named for the Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, a friend of his father. Both John and Alice Coltrane had deep attachments to India: John had become interested in the rhythms and sounds of Indian music in the early 1960s, forming a mutual admiration society with Shankar, and Alice was a lifelong student of Indian spiritualism. Both, too, were noted musicians—John as a saxophonist and bandleader, at the peak of fame by the time of Ravi's birth, and Alice as a classically trained pianist who often sat in with her husband.
John Coltrane died of liver cancer when Ravi was just two years old. After his death, Alice Coltrane moved the family to California, where they lived in a suburb of Los Angeles. Though Alice never pushed her children to follow in their parents' footsteps, the Coltrane household was filled with music of all kinds. Ravi Coltrane recalled in the biography on his Web site, "My mother was playing piano and organ in the house, every day. She took us to her performances and to recording sessions. She played my father's LPs and recordings of classical music. Early on, I listened to a lot of R and B, soul music, popular music of the day—James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Motown music, Earth Wind and Fire. Later … I listened to more symphonic music—Stravinsky, Dvorak."
Coltrane began playing the clarinet in junior high school, but his interest in music was casual. Though he appreciated jazz, he knew little about his father's music. It was not until his late teens that his attitude began to change. In 1982 his older brother, John Jr., was killed in a car accident. The incident shook the family and prompted Ravi Coltrane to reconsider his direction in life. He began listening seriously to jazz—not just his father's recordings, but also other jazz musicians, such as Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. In 1998 he told Ben Ratliff in the New York Times that jazz "became something I couldn't live without."
In 1986 Coltrane was accepted into the music school at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)—more on the strength of his name than on his experience as a musician—and decided to study the tenor and soprano saxophone. Even then, he still was not sure that he wanted to make a career of music. "I enrolled to see if music was something I wanted to do or even could do," Coltrane remembered in an interview with R. J. DeLuke for All about Jazz in 2003. "It was a total experiment…. I didn't stand up and say, ‘today I will be a musician.’"
Forged His Own Musical Path
Coltrane started playing gigs around Los Angeles while he was still in school, and within a year of completing his degree at CalArts, he moved to New York City. There, he apprenticed for two years under bandleader Elvin Jones, the influential drummer who had played with the John Coltrane Quartet in the 1960s, and later under fellow saxophonist Steve Coleman, who acted as a mentor to Coltrane as he developed his own style. During the 1990s Coltrane played as a sideman on more than thirty recordings, accompanying such musicians as Jack DeJohnette, Rashied Ali, Geri Allen, Kenny Barron, Wallace and Antoine Roney, Graham Hayes, Gerry Gibbs, Joe Lovano, Joanne Brackeen, and Cindy Blackman.
In 1998 Coltrane made his debut as bandleader, recording the album Moving Pictures with pianist Andy Milne, bassist Darryl Hall, and drummer Steve Hass. The inaugural work was well received by critics. In the New York Times that year, Ratliff noted, "‘Moving Pictures’ is a rare jazz record. It isn't dazzling. Ravi Coltrane's music works on you more slowly. He has a warm, streamlined tone, and he's partial to small, sharp motifs and pockets of silence rather than the endless stuffing of notes through complicated harmonic grids." Coltrane followed up with From the Round Box in 2000 and Mad 6 in 2003. Turner for All about Jazz noted Coltrane's progression as an artist on these albums: "Each recording has shown different facets of the saxophonist in terms of performance, adaptation, and creativity, as he charts his own path as a musician."
The genre of Coltrane's music is best categorized as "American post-bop." This term describes a style of small-combination jazz that emerged in the mid-1960s, pioneered by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Charles Mingus. The form incorporates elements of modal and free jazz, avant-garde music, and hard bop (a style of bebop influenced by gospel and rhythm and blues music).
In 2005 Coltrane released his fourth album, In Flux, featuring pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer E. J. Strickland, his working band since 2003. Again, critics applauded. Turner in All about Jazz called the album Coltrane's "most striking and mature work to date." In the New York Times Ratliff reported in February 2005, "Mr. Coltrane avoids tired song structures and doesn't want to bore you. He's fascinated on one hand by miniatures and on the other by the idea of longer songs that sound like collective improvisation from start to finish. It's a record that you can point to and say: This is what jazz sounds like now in New York."
At a Glance …
Born on August 6, 1965, in Long Island, NY; son of John (a jazz saxophonist) and Alice (a pianist) Coltrane; married Kathleen Hennessy, 1999; children: William. Education: California Institute of the Arts, BFA, 1990.
Career: Side musician on thirty recordings, 1991-97; band leader, 1997—; RKM Music, co-owner, 2002—.
Addresses: Web—http://www.ravicoltrane.com. Agent—AMS Artists, 1153 River Rd., Teaneck, NJ 07666-1915.
Preserved the Family Legacy
In addition to his recordings, in 2002 Coltrane launched a music label, RKM Music. He formed the company in the hope of giving artists more freedom to experiment without, as he told interviewer DeLuke, "the corporate filters applied to recording projects." For RKM, Coltrane has produced such musicians as trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Michael McGinnis, guitarist David Gilmour (formerly of Pink Floyd), and fellow bandmate Perdomo.
As the family archivist and keeper of the John Coltrane legacy, Ravi Coltrane oversees a large collection of previously unreleased recordings kept by his mother, who died in 2007. In 1998 he shepherded the production of a new album, One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note, featuring a pair of live performances by the John Coltrane Quartet in 1965. In 2002 he produced Legacy, a four-disc retrospective of his father's career for Verve Records, as well as the reissue of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme in a deluxe edition.
Ravi Coltrane has never sought to emulate his famous father; rather, he has paid tribute to John Coltrane's legacy by becoming his own musician, and by defying comparison to his father. In his biography on his Web site, Coltrane reflected, "I want to be involved with music that is truly honest—that's not trying to follow trends or fit into someone's idea about what jazz ‘is.’ For Bird, Miles, Monk, Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter, I hold the highest level of appreciation because their love and knowledge of tradition was never greater than their need to follow their own path—the need to be themselves—this is my goal—my aspiration—to acknowledge with love my influences while attempting to move forward—to be open and receptive to shifts in the musical terrain—to make music that is relevant to my present day experience."
Moving Pictures, RCA Victor, 1998.
From the Round Box, RCA Victor, 2000.
Mad 6, 88/Columbia, 2003.
In Flux, Savoy Jazz, 2005.
New York Times, June 14, 1998; February 20, 2005; October 11, 2005.
DeLuke, R. J., "Ravi Coltrane: His Own Man, His Own Thing," All about Jazz, October 8, 2003, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=391 (accessed August 14, 2008).
Ravi Coltrane official Web site, http://www.ravicoltrane.com (accessed August 14, 2008).
Turner, Mark F., "Ravi Coltrane: In Flux," All about Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article_print.php?id=16765 (accessed August 14, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
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