JAZZ IN SPACE: March 2013

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, in appearance and style, is undeniably his father’s son, yet he’s forged his own well-regarded career culminating in last year’s potent Blue Note release, Spirit Fiction, a recording that ended up on many “best of” lists. Fast forward to a 6-day residency at New York’s The Jazz Standard in support of the album that put Coltrane in front of three different quartets, allowing this distinctive musician to play material within various contexts. The performance I attended on February 26 was the first night of this set of gigs, and focused on a band that until that evening had never played with Coltrane as a group before -- pianist/keyboardist Billy Childs, bassist Lonnie Plaxico (both experienced musicians) and a young drummer, Ms. Nikki Glaspie, a recent Berklee graduate and member of Beyonce’s touring band.

With an eager and diverse crowd in attendance, the rhythm section launched itself with the boom of the kick drum and settled into a thick cymbal licked groove with Plaxico producing a tightly coiled, almost electrified sound from his upright bass. Childs tapped the Rhodes resoundingly, phrasing as Ramsey Lewis would, and suddenly we weren’t in straight-ahead territory. Coltrane moved to center stage, armed with his soprano sax, and shot out notes as if testing the shifting rhythmic winds of his band. From a fragment of a melody, his notes coalesced over the roiling groove and Coltrane took flight. This was a Ralph Alessi tune called Cobb’s Hill and it provided a backdrop for Coltrane to exercise his improvisational skill, working up to his own “sheets of sound” during his soloing as the band got underneath him to give him the necessary lift.

Coltrane switched to tenor for Narcine, the set’s second tune and an original ballad off the musician’s 1998 Sony recording, Moving Pictures. Plaxico led the tune with a spiritually infused intro until Glaspie entered and defined its pace as a laidback chill tune. It didn’t stay there for long since the band was all about shifting time signatures and tempos. That provided notable solos from both Childs, an outstanding and much undervalued pianist, and Plaxico, both of whom pushed the music forward with authority and smooth confidence. By mid-tune it became clear there was no holding back the cherubic faced Nikki Glaspie who delivered a tight solo as a ball of fire, ricocheting notes off her kit with a power and skill that betrayed her compact physical stature. The final tune, the third in an hour plus set, was a group improvisation in search of a title. Again, it was groove based and danceable in many parts, with Childs delivering an elegant solo on piano. For the most part, the songs that Coltrane lined up for the evening were snapshots of modern, contemporary jazz, with evocative solos folded into easy rhythms with a spark of fire at their center. The Brooklyn-based Coltrane has performed at NY’s Birdland Jazz club and the hallowed Village Vanguard, but it was his first time at the Jazz Standard and on this particular evening you saw another side of the saxophonist that’s not been recorded. Is this the type of sound we might see on an upcoming release? I asked Coltrane in between sets and he chuckled and answered with agreeable smile, “we’ll see.”  

The NY Times reviewer, Ben Ratliff, captured another night of Coltrane’s residency with a different band, which you can read here.


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