The title of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s most recent album, Blending Times (Savoy Jazz), released in 2009, works on two levels. First, harking back to a track of the same title on his previous album, In Flux (Savoy Jazz), it refers to the simultaneous blending of time signatures in a composition. Second, it refers to two distinct time periods in both Coltrane’s personal life and the recording of Blending Times. Those periods are divided by a cataclysmic event: the death of his mother, Alice Coltrane, musician, composer and spiritual leader, on Jan. 12, 2007.
Two times, but one certainty: Coltrane is playing with a quiet authority that commands the ear. It’s a quality he’s summoned before, but not in such a sustained way. His concentration has deepened, the emotional content of his music has become even more immediate and his notes carry more freight. It’s as if he has dramatically shortened the distance between his music’s source and the brass tube that is its outlet.
In short, Ravi Coltrane has matured into a musician whose tone packs a spiritual wallop, a healing quality, and you can check it out next week when the Ravi Coltrane Group—with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer EJ Strickland—camps out at the Outpost on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Coltrane says he can hear the difference in the tracks recorded before and after his mother’s passing. “My life, my attitude, my prospects, my ideas were one way when my mother was living, and they shifted to a completely different way after she had passed,” he says in a phone interview. “I’d never had the experience of not having a mother before—my only parent, my primary guide.” His father, the iconic John Coltrane, passed away when Ravi was 2. “It was a very new place for me, and everything became new, every note. I was processing things in a totally different way,” he says. “I felt like I was in a different world. Really, I was in a different world. I had never lived in a world without my mom.
“I was listening to the two sessions, one from 2006 and one from 2007, and I thought maybe this is what the record can be about. It can be about the present and the past, or the past and the future, or black and white, or left and right—and how they coalesce and how they combine,” he says.
Coltrane’s tone has taken on a striking warmth, and on the slower, more elegiac tunes, it summons a hymnlike quality. Throughout the album, his sax just sings, with a more profoundly vocal quality than ever before—a quality that he’s continually working on.
“It’s not just about the playing,” he says, “it’s how the sound makes the listener feel.”
The compositions, of course, play a role, and for the most part, the tunes on Blending Times—from ballads to burners—eschew the old format of head/improv/head. The tunes unfold more like dialogues, and they require—and get—tremendous improvisational skill from every member of the group.
For the improvisations themselves, the group sets up specific parameters—for example, “The drummer will play in six, the pianist is going to play in four”—but does not discuss what will be played. With just seconds left in the interview to explain the process, Coltrane says: “The agenda is just this—it’s a small one: I’m going to do this thing where we hand off this idea, and it’ll go around, and one person drops out, the other person comes in. Those are the little structured agendas we’ll have for an improvisation. We use a sort of dialogue, this sort of call-and-response language as our cues.”
The result is a free-flowing conversation that prizes immediacy, honesty and collaboration—three things that the Ravi Coltrane Group possesses in abundance.