Sunday, October 13, 2019

Ravi Coltrane and Mike Watt In Pittsburgh Within Days of Each Other

On October 5, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet blew into town. It marked the first time that the saxophonist came to town with his own band. He appeared with the Blue Note 7 at the Manchester Craftmen's Guild in the mid aughts and twice he was scheduled for the Pitt Jazz Seminar, though he only made it once, due to a last minute cancellation in 2017.

Coltrane, who is the son of the late John and Alice Coltrane, has been playing saxophone professionally for around 20 years. If the family name has helped him get his foot in the door, he has worked hard in the meantime to be his own person on the tenor saxophone, and doesn't try to copy anything his father does. He also plays soprano sax, but he also is getting stronger and stronger on the sopranino, an instrument that he told me can be hard to play due to its intonation issues. I could hear that in last week's performance at the New Hazlett Theater, but if some of the notes were a little out of tune in the traditional sense, it lent more edge to the music, much like Eric Dolphy's high notes on the alto did.

The quartet consisted of Coltrane, Orrin Evans (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Kush Abadey (drums). They opened the set with "Cobb Hill," a composition by Coltrane's friend and frequent collaborator, trumpeter Ralph Alessi. (They recorded this song on Alessi's Wiry Strong album in 2011.) Everyone was playing at the top of their game. Coltrane explored the whole range of his tenor. Evans started his solo in the middle range of his piano, going on to lock into some taut grooves. Douglas proved why he is a force of nature on his bass. Abadey locked in with the bassist, in the first of many moments when he nearly stole the show.

I've made several references to Coltrane's sopranino playing since the instrument is so rare outside of AACM-related circles (and '70s Jethro Tull albums, when Ian Anderson played it). A question about it helped start off a good interview with him a few years ago, which was referenced in my preview in Pittsburgh Current prior to this show. So not only did I feel vindicated to see him bring it on stage, his second tune of the night was a bold piece of the bebop canon, Charlie Parker's "Segment." Coltrane was clearly putting a lot of effort into the tiny instrument, working though the occasional intonation issue for an inventive solo.

They followed that with "For Turiya," a piece by bassist Charlie Haden (Coltrane's mentor during college) which was dedicated to, and played with, Ravi's mother Alice. While the band rolled in a rubato feel behind him, Coltrane dug into some long tones that had a languid, meditative power that indeed evoked his mother.

Evans, Douglas and Abadey provided strong support for Coltrane, and each got plenty of room to stretch out, elevating the saxophonist's performance even further. Evans strikes the piano with one of the most distinct attacks in jazz, creating a sound that makes him easy to spot. It makes me think of McCoy Tyner's approach to the keyboard, and that has nothing to do with who the saxophonist is onstage. That was a feeling I had when seeing him with Sean Jones.

Coltrane didn't make a big deal out of playing one of his dad's songs, mentioning him quickly before a version of "Giant Steps," which was interesting for the moment during his solo when Evans decided to lay out. More impressive was the encore, a version of "Lush Life" played on the sopranino. In a song like that, where every note counts, Coltrane delivered.

Following the show, I ventured over to Con Alma, a new jazz club in Shadyside that I hadn't visited yet. Thoth Trio was playing, so it seemed like a good night to check it out. Coming through the front door, I felt like I was walking in onto the stage, as the band sets up next to the door. It made me wonder if the Five Spot was this intimate. Luckily a seat opened up at the bar and I eventually parked myself there for the rest of the night. The Coltrane Quartet had the same idea because they showed up later too. Evans and Abadey sat in for a few songs but Coltrane himself did not.

Monday, October 7 was my birthday, #52 in case anyone is wondering. Mike Watt has been hitting Pittsburgh sometime in October since the days of the Minutemen and this year, for maybe the third time in all of that, he did it on my birthday. Last year I had to work when he came, with the Meat Puppets in tow, so I decided I couldn't miss my Bass Hero this time around. Thankfully, my shift was over at 8 p.m., just as the show was starting. That only meant that I missed my co-worker Gordy's band Bat Zuppel open the show. I got there right as Edhoculi were getting ready for their tight, brutal set.

Watt ambled onstage a bit later, with the Missingmen - long-standing guitarist Tom Watson (ex-Slovenly, from the SST salad days) and drummer Nick Aguilar, the latter who would've done George Hurley proud but looked like he was several years too young to be in the club (though he is legal).

They opened with the Last's "She Don't Know Why I'm Here," one of several salutes to the musicians that came up at the same time as Watt and/or inspired his work. Before the end of the night, the trio would rip through Blue Oyster Cult's "ETI," Roky Erickson's "I Have Always Been Here Before" (a super-quiet song that had feedback issues and got Watt cussing) and a ripping, vicious version of the Pop Group's "We Are Time."

But most of the set consisted of Minutemen songs. From all corners of the catalog. Not just "popular" ones like "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" and "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs," but the two songs that followed the latter on What Makes a Man Start Fires and my favorite song from Politics of Time, "The Big Lounge Scene." Turning another year older, and hearing these songs played the same passion and intensity as they were 30+ years ago, it's enough to make a guy get all wistful. That would have happened if the group wasn't so tight, moving from song to song so quickly that I didn't have time get choked up about anything.

Watt of course was amazing. He seemed to be busting Aguilar's chops during the set, or maybe he was just firmly giving him direction. The feedback came during the quiet moments of the set, when the band got extremely quiet. I heard later that the soundman tried to get them to do a quiet song during the soundcheck to tweak things but Watt doesn't do that, sticking with a few particular soundcheck tunes. Oh well, it didn't bother me none.

Figured I'd shoot this for posterity, and leave the hard copy for some other fan who might want it.

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