October 11, 2005
From the Family Closet, a New Coltrane Album

At this summer's JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., Ravi Coltrane took on a potentially forbidding task: tenor and soprano saxophone duties with McCoy Tyner, the pianist and sole remaining member of the John Coltrane Quartet. Inevitably, the pairing stirred echoes of that epochal band, subjecting the younger Coltrane to an impossible standard. That he managed to acknowledge his father's saxophone influence without emulation was, in itself, a complex feat. "He's got a handle on the legacy," Mr. Tyner said later, "but he's not mimicking his father in any way."

But then, Mr. Coltrane, 40, has had time to refine his relationship to the family legacy. He became a saxophonist in his early 20's and gained his first major professional experience with Elvin Jones, his father's explosive drummer. In his solo career, which began on record only seven years ago, he has been careful to establish his own identity.

Yet he has also served, unassumingly, as a steward of his father's music, a background role that is both personal and increasingly public - as illustrated by the release today of the striking new John Coltrane album, "One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note" (Impulse!) , featuring a pair of performances by the Coltrane Quartet in the spring of 1965.

"This Half Note material really comes at a summit," Mr. Coltrane said by phone recently from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where he was on tour. "It's the high point of a sound that the band had been cultivating, basically, since 1961. The music that was recorded there comes at the strongest point of that band, playing that sound. Right after that, they start changing and going other places."

Fortunately for jazz fans, the Half Note album comes on the heels of more newly issued Coltrane: "Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall," a 1957 concert recording discovered in the Library of Congress in February and issued on Blue Note Records a few weeks ago to wide critical acclaim. As a rare document of the saxophonist's most storied apprenticeship, the recording has been heralded as a missing link in the chain of modern jazz.

Mr. Coltrane was more temperate in his assessment of the Carnegie tapes, which he described as "beautiful music." (He made this sound almost like a criticism.) He was halfway through a European tour with his own quartet, which was responsible for one of this year's most cohesive new jazz albums, "In Flux" (Savoy).

His path to the Coltrane legacy was circuitous. Mr. Coltrane was 2 when his father died, so he was brought up in Los Angeles by his mother, Alice Coltrane, a pianist and accomplished artist in her own right. Even though music, including his father's, was ubiquitous in the household, he turned seriously to jazz only after his older brother, John Jr., died in a car accident in 1982. Ravi Coltrane, then in high school, was hit hard by the loss; he wandered for several years.

It was during this time that he began listening in earnest to his father's records; he was tired, he said, of being embarrassed by his ignorance. He was surprised by his connection to the music. It led him to recordings by Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins - and to the saxophone.

Some of Mr. Coltrane's earliest playing was with his mother, who had quietly continued making music after withdrawing to form a Vedantic meditation center, in 1975. Last year he shepherded the release of her first studio effort in more than 25 years, the warmly meditative "Translinear Light" (Impulse!).

Mr. Coltrane first encountered the tapes that became the album "One Down, One Up" in 1991, in a closet in his mother's house. He has been angling for their release for 10 years, since the revival of the Impulse! label; the Verve Music Group, the label's corporate parent for seven of those years, has included some of Mr. Coltrane's smaller finds as bonus tracks on reissued CD's and will probably continue to do so.

The "One Down" performances, originally broadcast by the radio D.J. Alan Grant, mark the beginning of the final phase in his father's career, Mr. Coltrane said - emphatically celestial music marked by exploratory free improvisation, blistering atonality and, eventually, new musicians. By the start of 1966, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones had both essentially decamped, less embittered than alienated. ("There's no gain without a little pain," Mr. Tyner said last week with a fond chuckle.) The permanent installment of Alice Coltrane on piano and Rashied Ali on drums usually delimits the saxophonist's final transition. "But his last period actually starts right in the middle of 1965," Mr. Coltrane suggested. "It starts with this group: with McCoy and Elvin and Jimmy Garrison."

The music supports his assertion. Tension crackles throughout the album's four songs, three of which approach or exceed the 20-minute mark. Mr. Tyner delivers a solo on "Afro Blue" that matches any in his career for expressive drama. The whole quartet strains for weightless transcendence with "Song of Praise."
The pièce de résistance is a 27-minute-long tenor saxophone exertion on the album's title track that seems to enfold the entirety of Coltrane's musical experience in its sinewy embrace. An athletic and intellectual marvel, the solo has circulated for years as a hallowed bootleg among tenor saxophonists like David Liebman and Michael Brecker; its influence has been unseen but surely felt.

Mr. Coltrane was born a few months after the second of these broadcasts, and still cites the "One Down, One Up" solo as his favorite John Coltrane Quartet recording. But one gets the sense that it is no longer needed as a conduit to the man he has known only through music.

"There was a period in my life, about a year, where I listened to it every day," he recalled. "I'd always have a cassette, or a mini-disc or a DAT; I'd keep one with me, no matter what. I always thought, If the plane starts going down, I'm going to put this on, because it's really the last thing I want to hear."