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It must be more a burden than a blessing for an aspiring young jazz musician to inherit the surname of a legend, especially one as eminent as John Coltrane. Unlike Joshua Redman, Rene McLean, Chico Freeman, T.S. Monk, and the Marsalis clan, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and vocalist Miki Coltrane have more to contend with than family legacy; they have to deal with a father who was universally exalted as a deity. Forget about the unsurpassed virtuosity, unmistakable sound, and the nearly perfect songbook; and then imagine the enormous anxiety of being the child of a man whom fanatics deem on par with Gandhi. Talk about a serious Jesus complex.
Ravi bears a greater burden than older sister Miki simply because he plays tenor and soprano saxophones. He made his New York City debut in the early ’90s under the apprenticeship of the Coltrane-associated drummer Elvin Jones, then later with Jones’ successor, Rashied Ali. His name recognition, coupled with his close ties to two of Coltrane’s spiritual disciples, naturally garnered high hopes of a second coming. But at that time, Ravi’s rudimentary facilities, flaccid tone, and directionless solos stood light years behind the luminous beauty of St. John. Both Jones and Ali knew it, and so did the legions of Coltrane fans. Most importantly, Ravi knew it; and instead of pimping his father’s name for a premature record deal, he nestled himself deep in the shed to develop his voice with the likes of drummer Jack DeJohnette, trumpeter Wallace Roney, and pianist Joanne Brackeen. Perhaps his most beneficial tutelage was under alto saxophonist and M-BASE Collective progenitor Steve Coleman. After various conversations, jam sessions, and appearances on four Coleman albums, Ravi began to absorb Coleman’s idiosyncratic approaches to rhythm and harmony.
Ravi still doesn’t have a singular voice to set himself apart from his fellow young jazz lions, but his debut album, Moving Pictures, suggests that he is on his way. Unlike so many others of his generation, he’s not content to simply chase the Trane. He declines to load up his debut with well-worn Coltrane classics, fatherly dedications, and blatant Coltrane rip-offs disguised as original compositions. The album is, indeed, almost free of Coltrane clichés. It offers no oscillating waltzes, no droning modal-key excursions filled with passionate wails, no endless swirls of circular breathing, and no athletic marathons through numerous scales and chord changes. Moving Pictures is, to the contrary, a rather humble effort, but one that forces us to listen to Ravi as a burgeoning leader striving for his own voice rather than a devout follower tending his father’s fires.
Moving Pictures is not an easy listen. Aggressive improvisational virtuoso and immediately recognizable melodies don’t grab you with tepid bebop musing. Ravi delivers a refreshingly reserved offering that filters Steve Coleman’s asymmetrical rhythmic dexterity through the lens of Wayne Shorter’s intriguing melodic invention. His gray tone, quicksilver fluidity, and fractured phrases sometimes suggest alto saxophonist Greg Osby, another major architect behind M-BASE music. But Ravi doesn’t play nearly as many notes as Coleman or Osby; his economical phrasing is more relaxed and conversational than their prolix, in-your-face essays. However, he does share their affinity for the more cerebral and less emotive approach to music. Melodic ideas tend to overlap like double-exposed photographs. After a rousing version of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” Ravi subversively reprises its definitive melody on the next selection, Wayne Shorter’s wistful ballad “When You Dream.” But Moving Pictures is not another M-BASE affair, either. It deviates from the rhythmically challenging, funk-informed M-BASE albums with a core acoustic ensemble comprising pianist Michael Cain, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Aside from the percolating rhythms laid by percussion ensemble Ancient Vibrationswhich lurk underneath the buoyant duet between Ravi and guest trumpeter Ralph Alessi on “Interlude-Thursday,” the reprise version with additional improvisational thrust by Steve Coleman on “Outerlude-Thursday,” and the enchanting reading of McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace”the music stays pretty much in the realm of postmodern bebop.
Ravi’s contemplative stance makes him a natural balladeer. The alluring original “Narcine” opens with Ravi unraveling an elegant melody before commencing a bluesy excursion that’s by turns bold and blustery, reticent and tender. The ever-sparse Cain punctuates Ravi’s solo with some unexpected jabs before wandering into a probing solo that combines Herbie Hancock’s impressionistic grace with Thelonious Monk’s harmonic suspense and rhythmic ingenuity. Plaxico contributes the song’s most perplexing solo as he departs from his supportive walking bass line to deliver angular, pizzicato figures.
Melodicism seems to be Ravi’s trump card. It’s most evident in the elegiac reading of Horace Silver’s “Peace,” which he gives a deep-tissue massage as he improvises on the melody with subtle grace. But don’t be mistakenMoving Pictures is not all languid ethos. Powerhouse drummer Watts underpins “Inner Urge” with some wickedly complex rhythmic patterns that propel the intertwining lines of Ravi and Coleman. Both “Inner Urge” and the thumping “Tones for Jobe Kain” capture Ravi at his most forceful: His solos become more menacing and tightly coiled as Watts pushes the momentum with thundering polyrhythms.
Throughout, the ensemble engages in a sophisticated degree of empathy that downplays ego tripping in favor of group interaction. The boisterous Watts and the pensive Cain successfully complement each other. Although it lacks the extroverted pizzazz that marks many debuts, Moving Pictures is an intelligent and at times inventive debut that allows a lot of room for both technical and compositional growth.
Miki Coltrane doesn’t fare as well as her brother on her debut. I Think of You is not a totally unlistenable effort; there’s just not much to garner a second listen. Miki has a pleasantly bright but nasal voice that would probably do the pop and R&B worlds a great service. But a jazz singer she’s not. Often she sounds like a pop singer trying to sing jazz. Although Sarah Vaughan’s sassiness seems to be her main influence, Miki’s voice falls somewhere between Dianne Reeves and Nnenna Freelon. But she has neither Reeves’ deep chocolate resonance and dramatic verve nor Freelon’s fleeting virtuosity.
Like Moving Pictures, I Think of You is fairly unassuming, despite the brave move of featuring mostly untested originals. Instead of relying on signature Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, and Cole Porter staples, Miki opts for mushy material that ranges from contrived Latin-tinged mid-tempo songs to melodramatic ballads. The antiseptic musicianship merely furnishes a supper-club ambience for Miki’s perfunctory vocals. Her wavering intonation and faint vibrato make her sound as if she’s got stage fright.
As on most jazz vocal albums, themes of love, newfound love, and lost love run rampant. Unfortunately, the lyrics are embarrassingly doltish. On the remarkably banal “Sunnyface,” Miki coos the yawn-inducing lines “You always said to me that you loved my sunny face/It chased away your clouds of grey/But still you strayed from my sunny face.” She slightly departs from the syrupy with the bossa nova reading of Papa Coltrane’s “Lazybird,” which features both Ravi and mother Alice on piano. But instead of it becoming an inspired family affair, “Lazybird” proceeds quite unconvincingly.
The fact that Miki’s premature debut wasn’t picked up by a major label imparts hope that, even to some of the most mercenary corporate labels, quality music does count for somethingno matter how legendary the name.CP