Massry Center for the Arts
March 15, 2012
by Jeff Waggoner
It is a conceit to place musicians into arbitrary categories. The innovators: Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. The technicians: Oscar Peterson and Buddy Rich. Then, the painters: The Joe Hendersons. The
Tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane place as an impressionist is secure: His is a unique voice that doesn’t surprise or command. It invites and evokes.
Each listening to Ravi, son of innovator John, begs the question: why did he step into such big shoes? The answer is clear: He’s not. He’s got his own pair. Please don’t ask again.
Those shoes are moving forward, as he showed clearly March 15 at the College of St. Rose, Massry Center for the Arts.
He had a new group with him. David Gilmore on guitar, Lonnie Plaxico on upright bass and Nate Smith on drums. Different from Coltrane’s usual quartet, and still getting acquainted.
The brilliant young drummer Nate Smith seems the best natural fit for Coltrane. They are similarly understated, working with the same palate of subdued colors, even if they play different instruments.
Smith’s dynamic control allows him to be heard underneath all sounds. He lays down an unobtrusive carpet of pulses and rhythms: A dry, crisp ride and tight, popping tom-toms.
The guitarist Gilmore is at the other extreme, often using bright, angular tones. Plaxico, the dexterous bassists, has his own language. It comes from the natural grammar of his hands, which produce a beautiful and deliciously fat tone.
It was the third song of the first set, a wholly improvised piece, that provided the first glimpse of the potential of this group. It started with the movement of Plaxico’s fingers, which fanned like cards in a shuffling deck while creating Twilight Zone riffs.
It soon shifted to Smith’s gentle mallets that hovered over the skins and doubled as brushes.
But the song revolved around the sounds coming out of Coltrane’s Selmer -- which he rocked in a half lunge, left foot forward -- in elegiac swirls of timeless jazz. There it was. Ravi’s sound. His art.
Not derivative as much as evocative and atmospheric. There were sounds of the ghosts of past jazz. The sounds of film noir. It wasn’t so much reinvented as refracted and rehoned.
It was a sound to which his band mates gravitated, even, eventually, the rambunctious guitarist.
The band treated us to eight songs in total. Three in the first set. Four in the second. And the encore. Some were originals. Some standards. Some created out of thin air – improvised.
Someone in the audience suggested that Coltrane put this band together to move himself out of his comfort zone, pushing himself forward.
If he shares one big thing with his iconic father, it is that inner drive toward exploration. And it means we, gratefully, have much, much more to hear from Ravi Coltrane.
Jeff Waggoner has written book, CD and concert reviews for publications such as Down Beat, Jazz Times, Blues Access and The New York Times.