LIVE: The Ravi Coltrane Quartet @ the College of St. Rose’s Massry Center, 3/15/12

Dave Gilmore and Ravi Coltrane
Dave Gilmore and Ravi Coltrane

Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

By rights, Ravi Coltrane should have been gripping, and gripping hard, because he and his band mates were still in the process of getting to know each other. In a conscious effort to expand his already-heady musical horizons, the second-generation saxman decided earlier this year to experiment with different back-up players and configurations; as a result, Coltrane put the band he brought to the Albany Riverfront Jazz Fest in 2010 – pianist Luis Perdomo, drummer E.J. Strickland, and bassist Drew Gress – “on hiatus.” (Not that they’ll be gathering much moss: Perdomo has a great new trio disc I’ll be reviewing on the next “Jazz2K”; Strickland is making amazing music on his own when he’s not backing his tenor-playing brother Marcus Strickland; and Gress has so many sideman gigs, you probably have to book him a year in advance!)

Far from clenched, Coltrane was loose as a goose from the start. When he said, “Good evening, everybody” into a dead mic, he simply kept repeating the phrase – with the same inflection, in the same rhythm – until the sound tech turned him up. Inspired by Ravi’s meter, drummer Nate Smith started laying down a beat to Ravi’s “rap.” He was about to drop it when Ravi gestured to keep going. Smiling himself, Smith worked the groove as bassist Lonnie Plaxico picked it up. Coltrane bopped to it all and then cut his partners off, laughing. Good thing, too: Given the jammed-out madness that was to follow, who knows what might have happened if they’d kept going?

Let me explain. The first set featured a hard-bopping take on Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You,” a swirling version of Ralph Alessi’s “Who Wants Ice Cream” and a meditative group improvisation that let Coltrane’s new bandmates get their noses out of their charts and just let loose. Those three pieces took up almost one hour. Yup, an hour, and if you can tell me where the band served up anything but USDA prime content, you win free cookies for a month. It was literally hypnotizing, and when it was over, you looked at your watch and said, “They played HOW long?!” And the funny part is, the photographers covering the show were told they could only photograph “the first three songs.” Thank Goddess for digital cameras!

Ravi started “Nothing” in the clear, working through the changes like he was trying them out for the first time. The rest of the band came in one by one, filling the air with free action and reaction, until Coltrane found the opening he wanted and charged through it, his bandmates right behind him. On this and everything else he played, Coltrane’s lines were birthed from a stream of consciousness that eventually became an all-encompassing flood. There were pauses for breath, emphasis and punctuation, but mostly Ravi just blew and blew, knees bending and eyes closed, totally in the zone. Forget filling his father’s shoes – Ravi’s own shoes leave a hell of a print!

There’s no doubt in my mind Coltrane could have just stayed out front on every tune, and you wouldn’t hear a lick or an idea twice. Instead, he gave his new playmates an amazing amount of room to stick & move. After urging on guitarist David Gilmore’s in-the-clear opening to “Ice Cream,” Coltrane left the stage almost immediately after establishing the melody and let Gilmore play lines that were so beautiful, all you wanted to do was close your eyes and float. Switching the foil instrument from piano to guitar stiffens the spine of Coltrane’s music even further, but Gilmore found a very happy medium between a standard hollow-body sound and the rock-hard attack John Abercrombie once gave Charles Lloyd. Gilmore helped Coltrane be the anti-Getz on the tasty samba “Narcined,” but he also put the pedal to the metal on the frenetic closer (and Gilmore original) “Eleventh Hour Blues.”

Of all the new recruits, Plaxico seemed to have the most “problem” with the charts in front of him. Not that he was bad – far from it! But there were points during his solos on “Ice Cream” and “Narcined” where he was so transfixed on the paper in front of him, he literally stopped playing, his expression reminiscent of a jack-lit deer. But Plaxico found his feet on Coltrane’s aptly-titled original “Ballad,” and Plaxico’s bowing on the standard “I’m Old Fashioned” was so big and wide, I though someone brought a tuba onstage! He was also a tiger on the first-set improv, stroking and plucking muscular chords that had Coltrane and Smith exchanging grins. On the other end of the scale, Smith took to Coltrane’s music like a hungry cheetah takes to a lazy gazelle. It all seemed like second nature for the man who replaced Billy Kilson in the Dave Holland Quintet, and Coltrane looked to Smith for direction changes on multiple occasions.

This was not a perfect show. There was no question that this was early days for this particular unit. But its awesome potential – combined with final, breath-taking, two-hours-plus final product – really made you want to ask Coltrane if his regular band’s hiatus could be extended a little bit… say, until the end of the decade.

Jeff Waggoner’s review at Albany Jazz
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Albert Brooks’ photographs at Albany Jazz
Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from Dave Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “When Plaxico and Smith were prone to chasing Coltrane in his occasional venturing, Gilmore served to anchor the song — for the band and for the audience — with simple, deliberate chords. The second number — 20 minutes into the show — was ‘Who Wants Ice Cream?’ This was a sweeter, less ambitious tune than the first. Gilmore took the first solo, staying inside the song with tasteful phrasing. Coltrane talks about using music to discover new things. For that to happen, he seeks adventure. He did that Thursday night by playing with different musicians than his usual quartet. But also, in the third song, he called a few audibles, asking his bass player to take a solo, alone, while the three other members of the quartet — and the audience — watched. In some ways it felt like an audition as the group looked on, encouraging and affirming some of his moves. They each knew they were next.”

Nothing Like You
Who Wants Ice Cream
Group improv #1
I’m Old Fashioned
Eleventh Hour Blues
Group improv #2

Nate Smith
Nate Smith
Dave Gilmore and Lonnie Plaxico
Dave Gilmore and Lonnie Plaxico
The Ravi Coltrane Quartet
The Ravi Coltrane Quartet

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