Always the artist
Ravi Coltrane’s music is a refreshing taste of thoughtfulness
Ravi Coltrane is maybe not for-the-semester music. Sometimes you need a specific cocktail, to regain your dignity, or remember what love feels like, or shake off some encroaching loneliness, if only for 40–60 minutes. Ravi Coltrane isn’t good for that. If I plan on getting work done, I’ll listen to Robert Fripp, or Radiohead. Maybe if I want to feel nostalgic, I’ll listen to Tom Waits or Animal Collective. These are specific cocktails. I enjoy them within a specific context. They are connected to people I know, and places where I’ve drunk them. These songs are the way I dogear the pages of life.
Coltrane is a bit different. He’s a bit special, since he, with the group Saxophone Summit, was one of the first groups I heard here in Boston (at the Regattabar). Despite that, I have no one scene that I identify with his music.
I’d be quite afraid to call Ravi Coltrane’s idiom a celebration of banality, but standing next to “Paranoid Android,” Coltrane certainly spends a lot more time with the earthly. His post-bop improvisations — their rapid transitions between consonance and dissonance — mirror our everyday oscillations in mood, only amplified and made discernible. These stimuli aren’t earth-moving events (we’re not all Robert Jordan), but the typical highs and lows of bird songs and stomachaches, hunger pangs and summer breezes. Not that the younger Coltrane doesn’t touch upon more melodramatic things like romantic love and psychopathic evil, but he approaches the spiritual (and the cynical) through the threshold of the mundane. After all, even Gandhi, Shakespeare, and Hitler spent the larger chunk of their day worrying about what to eat and where to shit than whatever it is that they’ve actually become famous for.
Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. In contrast to the semester — when it seems that you need a celebration of the dramatic to justify the somewhat painful, soulless slogging we do here — in the summer it seems there’s something quite wise about music that celebrates the banal, in the spirit of the banal.
I suppose I don’t really mean banal — I mean real. Listening to Ravi is a sort of return to thoughtfulness. There’s a lot of music that’s supposed to be like a rush of cocaine — dually exciting and deadening. Walking out of a Ravi Coltrane show just opens you up to the same colors you saw walking in, but you feel as if you have a new vocabulary to express them.
Coltrane has a certain rawness to his playing. It’s not finished, it’s not some culmination. I think a younger me may have been looking for that, but even in jazz, music does not exist outside of people. Listening to Coltrane three years later, I’m still stunned by the man. I think that it takes a lot of faith to be an artist, or perhaps stupidity. But whichever it is, Coltrane manages to keep making noise with a deep sincerity. It’s not something I could hope to describe. “I wish you were here to see it,” as Fripp might say, because being in love for a moment and for a year are very different things, and I’d like to think that Coltrane speaks to the latter.
Props also to Coltrane’s quartet, comprising himself, E. J. Strickland on Drums, Drew Gress on Bass, and Luis Perdomo on piano. As a group, they cycled well between standards such as Monk’s Epistrophy and the elder Coltrane’s Giant Steps, as well as lesser known, heart-stoppingly lyrical tunes, such as Charlie Haden’s “For Turiya” (written for Ravi’s mother, Alice).
Coltrane will be doing a residency at the Village Vanguard from September 20 to 25, and I highly recommend it. It’s a schlep, but Coltrane’s music will stick with you. It certainly has for me.