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Going on a 50-date tour with a makeshift group a few days prior to releasing a new record with your steady band isn’t exactly the best way to sell records, but such is the nature of jazz. Just ask New York saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who likens being a jazz musician to that of any freelance industry. The 43-year-old—along with Bill Charlap, Peter Bernstein, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton, Peter Washington and Steve Wilson—is in the midst of a nationwide trek as part of the Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary Tour, for which the septet run through tunes from the label’s history, ranging from such artists as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson to Lee Morgan and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.
If the name sounds familiar, it should: Ravi is the son of jazz legends John and Alice Coltrane. But a famous last name only gets you so far, and Coltrane doesn’t rely on nepotism to pay the rent. His latest disc, Blending Times, is contemporary jazz at its best: cool, grooving, wild at times and mysterious in all the right places.
We caught up with Coltrane while he was at a tour stop in Napa Valley.
OC Weekly: How did this tour come about?
Ravi Coltrane: [Jazz promoter] Danny Melnick wanted to do a tour and hand-picked a band. Somebody had an idea when they called us, and we said, “Okay.” I wish it was more complex than that, but it’s not.
How much creative input do you have?
We’re all huge fans of all those records, so the idea of coming together and doing new arrangements is very exciting. We’re not re-creating records. The idea of just doing something for nostalgia can be limiting. It’s much more in keeping with their original spirit of the masters to be in the present tense. If we only go back and try to play like them, I don’t know how much we’d be honoring them. Those guys only looked forward.
Jazz is the only genre that could pull this off.
It’s a living art. Most of these classic Blue Note records were made in the ’50s and ’60s, but to play that music today doesn’t mean we’re suddenly back in 1958.
Tell me a little about your personal connection to Blue Note.
That’s impossible to answer. The continuity of all that music is so distinct. It feels like one sound, one feeling that I get from all that music. It’s hard to say I like Wayne Shorter more than Joe Henderson. It all worked together to create something that was much larger than the sum of its parts. It’s very high art that was not fully understood at the time. We don’t do things very differently than the way they did things then. They laid a foundation that extends to today.
As a player, what’s it like going from being with a consistent lineup to being thrown into a new band?
Jazz musicians are essentially freelancers. I might play with my band one week and the following with four other people. The music is set up so everyone assumes their role. Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do, so you can rearrange the pieces or the players and we can still function.
In the beginning of your career, you put out records almost every other year. But there are four years between In Flux and Blending Times. Why’s that?
You make a record when it’s time. I never felt compelled to put a record out every year because that’s the standard business model. You do it when you have ideas and things you want to put down on tape. It’s totally subjective, but you know when something is right and when something is wrong. If it’s wrong, you change it. If it’s right, you say, “Okay, I’m done.”
Your playing is more refined on this disc, and the tracklist is structured.
If that’s what you hear, that’s what you hear. If you like it, that’s the most important thing. What it means, how it means, what it’s about . . . my ideas are one thing, and now it’s up to the listener to say what they feel about it. It’s not up to me to say what it’s about on a playing level. I lost my mother in the beginning of 2007, so everything after that turned a corner, and I can never round that corner again. I hear a very distinct approach from the material from 2006 and the material from 2007. So the record is, at times, holding both of those things up.