Out of all the progeny of musical legends whose shadows loomed over their children’s careers, saxophonist and bandleader Ravi Coltrane arguably has had the largest shadow from which to emerge. Nonetheless, the son of jazz titan John Coltrane has become well-known and consistently praised for his talent of embracing jazz’s past only as a means to communicate his own modern-day voice. On his Blue Note Records debut, Spirit Fiction, he does just that—utilizing the provocative idioms of the avant-garde and free jazz to explore the abstract and mysterious with myriad moods and textures.
The most adventurous aspects of Coltrane’s approach on Spirit Fiction are the inventive recording techniques he uses for several cuts and his playful use of space and complex meters. On the title track, his long-time quartet, which includes Luis Perdomo (p), Drew Gress (b), and E.J. Strickland (d), recorded separately as two duos and superimposed the outcomes to create this unearthly collage. Gress’ dark and stinging basslines propel the quartet’s haunted vibe, driving the anxious emotions of caution to panic and then back.
However, Coltrane also enlists Ralph Alessi (tp), James Genus (b), Eric Harland (d), and Geri Allen (p)—the quintet from his second album as a leader, From the Round Box (2000)—who help the saxophonist to convey more expansive ideas. The whimsically titled “Who Wants Ice Cream” may be closer to standard post-bop fare with Coltrane and Alessi’s graceful back and forth, but “Yellow Cat” features more dissonance and chaos. Here, the two horns solo over each other, trading barbs like two angry schizophrenics while the warmth of the rhythm section, led by Allen’s modal vamps, serves as a contrast to resolve the tension. The highlight of the album, “Fantasm,” actually features the trio of Coltrane, Allen, and saxophonist Joe Lovano, who produced this LP for Coltrane. Lacking bass and drums, it’s a brilliant yet more mercurial reinterpretation of the obscure tune composed by drummer Paul Motian (known for his trio work with pianist Bill Evans).
One would be hard pressed not to see the correlation of Spirit Fiction to his father’s indelible, avant-garde classic, A Love Supreme. That 1964 masterpiece was recorded when Coltrane, Sr. was beginning to realize fully his own musical language through free jazz but also had found himself reborn through Eastern spirituality. Because A Love Supreme is so highly regarded, nothing could fairly be compared to it. Nevertheless, that intangible, almost “spiritual” character of both albums is very different. Ravi’s “spirits” run a much wider gamut of moods, whether it’s romantic (“The Change, My Girl”), mischievous (“Klepto”), or agitated (“Spring & Hudson”), but still it never reaches the level of being an unfocused hodgepodge. Once again, he masterfully conveys his understanding of the free jazz form, and yet never duplicates his father in the least. In fact, Spirit Fiction may just be his most forward-thinking album thus far.