It happens every time Ravi Coltrane takes the stage.
Audiences wait to hear snippets of influence from John or Alice Coltrane, his parents, who both have made an indelible mark on jazz. But make no mistake, Ravi has charted a course that is all his own.
The Ravi Coltrane Quartet performed a tight set of six compositions on Friday, March 1 at Milkboy ArtHouse in College Park. The venue is a part of The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. I interviewed Ravi after his second set and I was surprised to learn that this was a newly assembled quartet and the two shows at Milkboy were the first time the group performed together in public.
In addition to Ravi on tenor and soprano saxophone, the other members of the group were David Gilmore (guitar), Nasheet Waits (drums) and Rashaan Carter (bass), who is from the D.C. area. Ravi had played with his bandmates individually, but not as a group until that evening.
“This band didn’t even have a chance to rehearse,” Coltrane said with obvious excitement in his voice. “We got together this afternoon, played through a bunch of music and this is the launch.”
So that’s how good these musicians were. Each quartet member contributed expertly and thoughtfully on every selection. The solos were outstanding. I felt the audience agreed.
The skill and innovation of the quartet came through in the repertoire that started with an untitled Ravi composition. Next was “Cobb Hill” co-composed by the late jazz drummer Paul Motian. It makes sense why this song was a nice platform for drummer Nasheet Waits. That was followed by “Endless,” a slower, dream-like tune also composed by Paul Motion.
My favorite of the evening was the fourth song in the set “Epistrophy,” a Thelonious Monk composition that has been a part of Ravi’s lineup for years. The arrangement had touches that reminded me of equestrian high-stepping with deliberate, choreographed steps.
The rhythms of John and Alice Coltrane could be heard throughout the set, but there were specific nods that Ravi gave to his parents. “For Turiya,” is a composition composed for Alice Coltrane by Charlie Haden, the late jazz bassist. The original was a duet performed by Haden and Alice. Absent Alice’s spiritually-infused harp, the performance by the quartet was still satisfying. The final song was John Coltrane’s “Liberia.” It’s a classic for which the audience showed their appreciation for including in the set.
Coltrane’s saxophone pacing throughout the evening was measured, taking us on a journey where we were spoken to very clearly by melodies filled with insight. You just wanted to close your eyes and enjoy the ride.
In the audience was Kyle Schick of Berwyn Heights, a University of Maryland alumnus and saxophone player catching Coltrane in concert for the first time. Of course, he was interested in seeing the son of John and Alice Coltrane perform.
“The way he played those ballads, I kind of heard his father a little bit,” said Schick, adding that he was told to listen to John Coltrane in high school by his music teacher when he was studying the saxophone. “John Coltrane was known for a tornado of sound, but he could really play a ballad as well. I like the slower tunes.”
Earlier in the day, Coltrane and his band did a jam session with the Jazz Division students at the University of Maryland School of Music. When asked how that went, Ravi said mostly the students just wanted talk.
“It’s such a very crucial time in their lives. They are deciding where they want to go as creative artists,” Coltrane said. “We spoke a lot about intuition. How much should we, as improvised musicians, bring in? There is something about this music where you have to combine those two things. It’s what we know and what we imagine.”