October 11, 2005
From the Family Closet, a New Coltrane Album
By NATE CHINEN
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
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
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."