Monday, July 23, 2012

CD Review: Ravi Coltrane - Spirit Fiction

Ravi Coltrane
Spirit Fiction
(Blue Note)

Ravi Coltrane's first album for Blue Note Records as a leader does not put him in a setting that either relies on the label's golden years nor does it lean on the family name and heritage. While the latter situation is unlikely anyhow, given the saxophonist's weighty discography, some people might have expected the former since Coltrane played with the Blue Note 7, an all-star group that released an album and toured to mark the 70th anniversary of Alfred Lion's creation of the label.

Spirit Fiction has some compositions that come from outside the band, but instead of Horace Silver, Lee Morgan or Coltrane's father (Blue Train might be his only album on the label but it's probably in their Top 10), he tackles Ornette Coleman and Paul Motian, with no less than album producer Joe Lovano joining him on both. The rest of the tunes come from Coltrane or his longtime bandmate Ralph Alessi (trumpet) and while they appear to aim in a straight forward direction, they get more adventurous the deeper that they are investigated.

To be sure, Coltrane hits the ground.... probing. His soprano saxophone enters "Roads Cross" testing the waters before a spirited free improvisation is stirred up by his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, drummer E.J. Strickland). If devotees of Blue Note are meeting Coltrane for the first time, they're getting an audacious opening salvo, albeit one that won't disappoint anyone with open ears.

Just past the album's midpoint, the quartet revisits the scenario with "Cross Roads" which sounds a little more urgent but just as exploratory. It provides an interesting comparison to the title track, which is equally free flowing for another reason: the quartet was split into two duos which recorded separately from the other and was superimposed after the fact. Perhaps they played it safe by limiting themselves to 2:28, but in doing so they arrive at a complete statement with no room for filler.

The quartet plays on six of the albums 11 tracks. The remainder reunites Coltrane with the band that performed on his 2000 album From the Round Box - Alessi, Geri Allen (piano), James Genus (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). This group also sounds so in tune with each other that they can keep it loose at the same time. The two horns begin "Who Wants Ice Cream" unaccompanied, sounding like they're completing one thought. Harland's accents really drive this one too.

The quintet is also the group that interprets "Check Out Time," the Coleman tune that comes from his Love Call album. The idea of adding a piano to the track seems odd but Allen was the first pianist to play with Ornette (on both of his Sound Museum albums in 1996) in over four decades. The two tenors, trumpet and piano create an especially rich sound on the theme and after some far-flung solos, they explode the theme in about four directions before bringing it back home. Motian's "Phantasm" recreates the warm bliss that could be felt when Lovano played with just the composer and Bill Frisell. Here, the two tenors work magic joined only by strong participation from Allen.

Coltrane's last album, 2009's Blending Times, stuck with me because he played with a rather cerebral sense of exploration that gave him a unique voice. That sense continues with Spirit Fiction which features two whole bands that share that are looking for new discoveries. This album has a lot of them.

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