Music » Interviews

Ravi Coltrane on jazz, family ties, and spiritual growth


  • Michael Weintrob

The jazz canon has, since its early days, been populated by legendary musicians whose sons and daughters have followed in their footsteps, some more closely than others.

Those family connections may be easily recognized with musicians like Crescent City patriarch Ellis Marsalis and his sons Wynton and Branford. But then there's the case of Don Cherry, whose harmolodic jazz bears little resemblance to his daughter Neneh Cherry's dance-pop success with the Malcolm McLaren-produced "Buffalo Stance." The musical connections are even less apparent between avant garde jazzman Olu Dara and Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones, better known as the hip-hop artist Nas. Yet whatever the differences in sound and vision, there's a spirit and vitality that's nearly always passed along, whether through inherited talent, growing up in a musical environment or other combinations of factors that the artists themselves may not be able to identify.

Which brings us to Ravi Coltrane, a supremely talented musician and 2016 Grammy winner whose family ties run deeper than virtually any of his second-generation peers. His father is John Coltrane, the legendary artist who embodied the heart and soul of jazz. The late saxophonist's unparalleled work ranged from the intimate spirituality of quartet recordings like A Love Supreme to live sets in which Coltrane and collaborators like Pharoah Sanders played free-jazz numbers that would go on for nearly an hour.

His mother Alice Coltrane also left behind an extraordinary, if less widely known, body of work: secular collaborations with an extended family of legendary musicians, spiritual chants recorded during her two decades leading an ashram after her husband's death, and her celebrated return to the secular jazz world with 2004's Translinear Light, produced by Ravi and released on Impulse! Records. As if all that weren't enough, Ravi's cousin is Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, an experimental hip-hop artist and producer who's collaborated with Kendrick Lamar and Erykah Badu.

Ravi, meanwhile, has created his own artistic legacy, with a 25-year recording career that's covered a wide range of jazz subgenres. Born in 1965, two years before his father's death, and raised in Los Angeles, the saxophonist has recorded more than three dozen albums as a sideman, many of them with Steve Coleman and other members of the loosely knit avant-gardist M-Base collective. He's also released a half-dozen albums as a bandleader on prestigious labels like Blue Note and Savoy Jazz.

As a live performer, his career highlights include a State Department-sponsored all-star tour promoting AIDS awareness, which took him to India for the first time, a particularly significant journey for an artist who's named after Ravi Shankar. He also played a tribute to his father at 2005's Newport Jazz Festival, leading a group that included longtime John Coltrane collaborators McCoy Tyner and Roy Haynes.

This year is already turning out to be no less impressive. In February, Ravi Coltrane performed on the Grammy telecast after winning the award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, an honor previously bestowed upon such legendary figures as Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

Ravi and his current outfit — which features Jonathan Blake on drums, Dezron Douglas on bass and Glenn Zaleski on piano — have been playing together for the past four years, and will be performing six shows at Denver's Dazzle Jazz venue later this month.

  • Lev Radin

Indy: I'd like to be begin by asking about last year's In Movement album. I know Jack DeJohnette and Jimmy Garrison's son Matthew are not your blood relatives, but given your close musical connections, did collaborating with them on that album feel like a kind of a family affair?

Ravi Coltrane: Yes, it always feels like family when we're together. We've all been very close for several decades, and probably spent more time together off the bandstand than on the bandstand. When I first got to New York in 1991, I was often driving up to Woodstock to spend time with Jack and his wife Lydia. He always had that sort of second-father kind of presence in my life, and in Matthew's life as well.

The album opens with your father's civil rights hymn, "Alabama." How relevant do you feel that song is today compared to back then?

Well, the era that we're living in is, in many ways, very different than when that piece was originally recorded by my father back in 1963. But we're still facing a lot of the same problems. And oftentimes we have to acknowledge that through our music and through creative expression. So yeah, that's why that piece is there.

You just won a Grammy for your solo on the title track. How many takes had you recorded before the one that ended up on the record?

I think we did it twice, and I'm not sure which of those takes was used on the album. But most of the things on the record, we didn't do more than one or two takes. It is a very free record [laughs], and the idea wasn't so much to get a perfect take but to express oneself to the best of one's ability. But, you know, you got what you got sometimes. I think Jack and Matthew especially, they were very content to not beat a dead horse, and if they felt the take was fine, they were ready to move on to the next piece.

Did that solo stand out for you? Did you go home and say, "Hey, I nailed it" or did it just feel like one more solo at the time?

Well, it was actually a very difficult record date for me. I wasn't very happy with any of the things that I played on the record, to be perfectly honest. It's just one of those things; you can be in the studio and feel good about what's happening musically, or you can have the opposite experience.

I wish that I had more situations where I'd gotten home after the recording saying, "Yeah, that was awesome, we nailed it today." But most of the time, yeah, you're working toward very specific goals, and you don't often reach them.

Would you say your own musical and spiritual goals are a little different than what they were when you were starting out a couple of decades ago?

Yeah, no doubt. Hopefully I've grown a little bit in the last 20 years.

In what ways?

Well, I think that I'm more or less still that same person, and I still have a lot of the same expectations of myself and the same intuitions and observations. So the goals can shift a little bit, but at the end of the day I'm still just trying to make steps as a player and as a thinker. It's not so much always what's coming out of your horn, but how you're hopefully learning and growing as a person musically and spiritually.

You've of course recorded for Blue Note, as have Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson and a number of the other more avant-garde musicians you've played with. But people tend to forget that Blue Note was home to a lot of pioneering free jazz and experimental musicians. Why do you think that is?

Well, historically it's known as a bebop and hard-bop label. But you know, at some point, when you've got the post-bop and the post-neo and the post-modern and whatever, we all start kind of swimming in very similar reservoirs.

I think that Bruce Lundvall, the great president of Blue Note who passed away a few years ago, he was so open-minded then and he loved all types of music. He started off as a saxophonist and he had just a very open mind about what jazz meant, whether it be free or straight ahead.

There aren't that many musicians who can go from experimental music to truly melodic jazz. What's it like to shift between such different styles?

Well, there are some players who can straddle every fence, and they do it very well. And there are some people who attempt to do that, and they don't do it as well. I think it's important for any musician to really follow their head and their heart, to play the music that's as meaningful to them as possible. And again, we try not to limit ourselves. There are opportunities to play straight-ahead music and there are opportunities to play more free music, or electronic music, or music influenced by hip-hop. And, at some point, it's hard to look at music in terms of genres and musical styles. You're just looking at it as music.

  • Lev Radin

On the subject of hip-hop, I interviewed your cousin [Flying Lotus] a few years ago and he told me that he spent a lot of time at your mom's house as a kid, and said that he'd really wanted to play saxophone. Did you ever hear him play? Was he any good?

[Laughs.] He was good at most things that he did. He was always a very, very talented kid, a very sweet kid with a good heart and a lot of ambition. His mother is my first cousin and the Ellisons grew up very close to us. So I knew Steven when he was in diapers, I knew him when he was a very, very young kid. And then by the time he did get to junior high school or high school, I had already gone off to school or whatever. But yeah, the guy was just as talented then as he is today, just as ambitious. I did hear him play the drums a few times, but no, I never heard him play saxophone.

You appear on a couple tracks on Cosmogramma, which he recorded not long after both of your mothers had passed away...


And he said those losses made him really want to move into a realm of expression that was deeper and more honest. Did a similar thing happen to you? Has your music been influenced by personal losses?

Well, our lives are totally reshaped by losses like that. I mean, to lose a parent, that completely reshapes your world.

It definitely does.

It's one of the most profound and heavy experiences that we all ultimately face, and yeah, it's like you're living in a new world, you turn a corner and you can't ever take it back around. With Steven, it was really clear how his mother's passing affected him, and he was able to immediately make those sorts of creative shifts and go deeper into his work and his expression. And losing my mother was one of the most difficult things that I had to deal with. I had already lost my father at two years of age. I lost my older brother in a car accident when he was 17, I was 16.

And my mother's death was completely unexpected. I had a conversation with her that morning and we were talking about when we were going to put these recording sessions together. We were finishing an album that she had been working on. You know, it definitely changes you a lot. It can tear you down and you have to kind of rebuild yourself up. It makes you go a little bit deeper to try to figure out what the true meaning is.

You produced your mom's first studio release on a commercial label in 27 years, so you must have been proud to have done that.

Oh yeah, without a doubt. It remains the thing that I'm most proud of. I can't even describe with words how it makes me feel to know that I was able to work with her and help shape that recording. I think she sounds amazing on it. And she always played great, even during that 25 or 26 years where she was not in the public eye or commercially releasing records. She always still played great, and I'd say, "Mom, come on, let's go into the studio, let's record some of this." But she was more focused on her spiritual practice. Recording for commercial release and that type of thing, for her, was something in her past, despite the fact that she was playing music every day — and documenting a lot of that music — for her students and for the purposes of ashram activities. But yeah, I just pushed and begged, and finally she agreed to go into the studio and to make that recording.

I want to ask about the Newport tribute you played with McCoy Tyner and Roy Haynes. Was it daunting to step out on that same stage and kind of play your father's role?

[Laughter] Well, when you step out on that stage, you can only play one role, your own. Ultimately that's what you're doing. But I hear what you're saying, and yeah, that was an interesting group. Michael Brecker was also a part of that band, and Christian McBride. I think being there, in the service of a historic legendary pianist like McCoy Tyner and a legendary drummer like Roy Haynes, it was an honor to be on that stage, despite the fact there were some heavyweight players up there. [Laughs.] So that in itself was probably the most daunting part of it for me.

Could I ask what's the best story anybody ever told you about your dad?

This is turning out to be a real John Coltrane interview...

I'm sorry, I know that you get asked about your father a lot.

It's all right. Tootie Heath, he told me a story once about how they were driving between New York and Philadelphia, going to a gig or coming back from a gig, something like that. And of course the bands drove in those days. And my father would often do a lot of the driving. He had a station wagon and they'd throw all the instruments, including the bass, in the car, and they'd get out on the road going to a gig. So Tootie was sitting in the front seat, and they were going down the highway at a pretty average pace, and Tootie had fallen asleep. And when he woke up some hours later, the car was flying like 100 miles an hour down the highway, and he said, "John, hey, what's going on?" and John said, "I got tired of holding my foot this way, it's easier just to hold it down this way." [Laughs.] It was like, OK, this makes sense, relax, stretch out, put your foot down on the pedal, and if the car goes a little faster, it's all good.

So what are you working on now that you're really excited about, and that the rest of us are going to hear?

Well, you know, I'm trying to continue composing — trying to make more steps there — and I've been trying to play more than just the tenor. I've been working on the sopranino, and I've been playing more b-flat clarinet and flute. You know, I hope to start messing around with the alto pretty soon, so I feel like I'm trying to get back into a sort of a woodwind-centric approach. And I'm working on a record, which at this point is still in my head, and someday hopefully it will actually see the light of day. But right now, it's in a very dark chasm somewhere in my subconscious.

You've been recording as a bandleader a bit less frequently these days. Does going back to more collaborative projects provide a different level of satisfaction?

Well, collaborating is great. It's less work. [Laughs.]

It is that.

And it's also great to have a musical foil to bounce ideas off of, and to brainstorm with, and to create something together. Left to your own devices, you can go down some rabbit holes and not always come up.

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