Live Review: Ravi Coltrane Quartet, Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow, Sat 28 Feb 2015
Jazz saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and his quartet are on another level, but openers New Focus Quartet give a tepid performance
Ravi Coltrane's three Scottish dates are undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Jazz Scotland's enterprising new series of year-round concerts. The son of two of the 20th century's greatest musicians, Alice and John Coltrane, the 49-year-old saxophonist has in recent years emerged as a distinctive leader, having come up as a sideman to his father's lieutenants Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, and the M-Base innovator Steve Coleman. His fine 2012 album on Blue Note, Spirit Fiction, saw him working with two different groups, negotiating knotty post-bop and subtly abstracted ballads. This tour has him playing with yet another group of musicians: David Virelles on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. It's an impressive quartet, sensitive and graceful, yet able to turn up the heat when Coltrane's more adventurous runs demand it.
Opening proceedings are the New Focus Quartet, a slick Scottish jazz outfit led by tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and pianist Euan Stevenson. Their smooth contemporary jazz was never going to appeal to a free jazz freak like me, but even on its own terms there is something frustratingly tepid about their performance. Wiszniewski's lush tone lends itself well to ballads, but its lack of grit means the more upbeat numbers sound terribly polite, more Grammy Awards than the Village Voice. The concise pieces leave little room for extended improvisation, meaning that lively solos from bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Alyn Cosker don't get a chance to catch fire. There's nothing wrong with straight-ahead melodic jazz, but New Focus don't take it anywhere interesting.
Coltrane and his quartet are on another level. While comparisons to his father are inevitable, Ravi is his own man, having developed a complex harmonic language that touches on the experimental territory of Ornette Coleman, without veering into atonality. Rhythmically, his playing is full of rapid accelerations and handbrake turns, reflecting the unpredictability of his song structures. While Coltrane never breaks into the freedom cries of his father's latter years, the rapid-fire invention of his soprano and sopranino playing is tremendously exciting, recalling the ecstasies of My Favourite Things or Impressions, as long trilling figures unspool and flare.
Virelles is a sensitive pianist, deftly laying down understated vamps before taking off in graceful flight with McCoy Tyner-eseque decorative flourishes and finely considered solos. His impressionistic extended chords flirt with dissonance without ever sounding jarring, allowing him to contribute a range of shades and moods to the group sound. The rhythm section of Douglas and Blake are superb, maintaining a steady swing, but unafraid to explore the groove from oblique angles. My only criticism of the group is that they don't always match Coltrane's intensity on the more frenetic post-bop numbers: although this is not a free jazz group, I'd be intrigued to see how far they'd be willing to push things out.
The highlight of the night is a soulful take on Charlie Haden's 'For Turiya'. On his 2009 album Blending Times, Coltrane opened the piece up with his mother's gorgeous Indian-classical inflected harp, and there are shades of her early Afro-conscious masterpieces A Monastic Trio and Ptah, the El Daoud in the quartet's stripped-back arrangement tonight. An extended solo feature sees Douglas quoting her sublime 'Journey In Satchidananda' and the darker lamentations of Haden's 'Song For Che', building to a powerful climax of torrid flamenco-influenced strums. Coltrane's tenor is a gently commanding presence, building on Haden's melody while remaining true to its generous spirit.
Ravi Coltrane Quartet and Wiszniewski/Stevenson New Focus Quartet played Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow on Sat 28 Feb 2015