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by Zachary Woolfe (The New York Times)
“Ambition sometimes gets a little out ahead of you,” Ravi Coltrane said. He was sitting in his living room in Brooklyn, next to his son’s tiny drum kit, talking about his new album, “Spirit Fiction.” “You start imagining more than you can actually pull off, and you cross that line from possibility into impossibility.”
On the wall nearby was a framed photo of Barack Obama standing in the White House gazing at a black-and-white photo of another musician, a saxophonist like Ravi. “To Ravi,” it is inscribed. “From a huge fan of your father’s.”
Not a little of the ambition of the new record is due to the ever-present specter of Ravi’s father, John Coltrane, one of most influential musicians of the 20th century. “Spirit Fiction,” with its rhythmic complexity and slippery structures, doesn’t so much challenge John’s legacy as move astride it. The album radiates a quietly adventurous artistry and a serene self-confidence.
That serene feeling emerged from conditions that were anything but. “Spirit Fiction” is Coltrane’s first record for Blue Note, the most legendary label in jazz and the company that in 1957 released “Blue Train,” the classic that made John Coltrane’s name as a bandleader. For the “Spirit Fiction” sessions, Ravi pushed himself and his bandmates hard. After recording tracks with his longtime quartet, Coltrane felt the urge to return to the studio again, this time in hastily arranged sessions with a quintet of musicians he has known since college. Thrown together with tape running, the quintet played with refreshing looseness, hitting on a mood that Coltrane had been seeking.
The final record contains tracks from both ensembles. Cobbling it together was an exhausting effort that strained some relationships; Coltrane’s quartet, formed in 2003, has gone on hiatus in its wake. It was a lesson his father might have passed along to Ravi: artistic searching sometimes leaves collaborators in its wake.
John Coltrane died of liver cancer at age 40 in 1967, when Ravi was not quite 2. He was raised by his mother, Alice, herself a brilliant composer and performer whose music — a trippy, meditative style of jazz that brought harps, synthesizers and chanting into the mix — was heavily influenced by her Eastern-inflected spiritual practice.
As a boy, Coltrane was sensitive, shy and a little nerdy. He aimed at becoming a filmmaker or a photographer. But he played the clarinet in his high-school marching band, and music — jazz, symphonic, pop (his aunt is the Motown songwriter Marilyn McLeod) — was always around.
“I used to sit in my mom’s car, back in the days when you could play the tape player without having to cue it,” he said. “And I’d literally just sit there after school and play tapes and stare out the windows just looking at the trees moving in the wind.”
He left high school after his older brother died in a car crash in 1982, and as he put it, “I just let a bunch of time pass.” When he emerged, he had left photography behind and returned to his musical roots. He began hanging out with serious jazz lovers, people who for the first time instantly recognized his surname.
“I had been anonymous in that regard,” he said. “Someone would say, ‘John Coltrane — I know that name. Wasn’t he a blues singer?’ I was just me growing up. No one knew who John Coltrane was. He was still an underground figure in many ways.”
He decided to study music and enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts. “Showing up with a saxophone and having the name Coltrane,” he said, “I immediately recognized that this was going to be distracting for people.” But it was also an opportunity. He spent summer breaks in New York with Rashied Ali, the drummer whose free-form style helped define John Coltrane’s late period. During daily jam sessions in Ali’s apartment, Ravi impressed older musicians who once played with his dad. Right out of school he scored a gig in the band of Elvin Jones, who played in John Coltrane’s legendary quartet of the 1960s. He proved himself on grueling international tours, but there were still people attracted solely by the novelty value of his lineage. Some record companies were more interested in getting him to join supergroups made up of the sons of jazz greats than in his own work.
“There were a lot of people who just wanted to take advantage of these things that for me — I felt, Man, I’m not here for that reason,” he said. “Anyone who knows me ultimately understands what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”
In his airy home studio, he keeps his mother’s Steinway piano and his father’s saxophone, its keys capped in pristine mother-of-pearl. There’s a bass clarinet that belonged to Eric Dolphy, who played with his father. The miniature drum kit seems to have seen the most recent action, though his son Aaron, after begging for it, promptly grew bored by it. I asked Coltrane, who just turned 47, if he wanted Aaron and his brother to grow up to be musicians.
“Secretly, I’d love — ” He stopped himself and started to laugh. “Well, I can’t put that out there. Because it’s up to them — it’s up to them. They’ll be great no matter what they do. They’ll be cool no matter where they go in life.”