Fathers and sons


It's interesting to ponder on how Mercer Ellington, who died in 1996, would have viewed the enormous ballyhoo surrounding his father's centenary this year. Mercer had a somewhat mixed relationship with his dad, who once tried to suppress Mercer's attempts at bandleading in the forties, oddly fearful that the public would be confused by two Ellington orchestras. In the end, following Duke's death, and with the orchestra itself in serious disarray, Mercer found himself with the thankless task of trying to run the Ellington ensemble as that awkward jazz phenomenon, the "ghost band".

Having a famous father in jazz is something that several young players of today have been learning to live with, too - Thelonious Monk Jr, Joshua Redman and three different offspring of Don Cherry among them. It's doubtful if any of them could feel quite so overwhelmed by the paternal shadow, though, as Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophonist, composer, bandleader - and surely always to be thought of as the son of John Coltrane.

The younger Coltrane has actually taken a rather quiet and unassuming path through a relatively uneventful career so far. Last year he recorded his debut album as a leader, Moving Pictures (RCA Victor), which emerged with a minimum of fuss and fanfare. Ravi has already done plenty of work on other people's records: Elvin Jones, Steve Coleman, Cyrus Chestnut, even the Japanese pianist Yosuke Yamashita. The name sits there in the band personnel like a talisman, yet Coltrane's style is undemonstrative, almost as if he doesn't wish to draw attention to himself.

It's not as if, already well into his thirties, he has rushed to build on his father's legacy. Like John Coltrane himself, Ravi may turn out to be a late developer. John had a long period of unremarkable work behind him when he joined up with the celebrated Miles Davis Quintet in the fifties: his early albums for Prestige were little more than casual blowing sessions; and it wasn't until he moved to Atlantic and made records such as Giant Steps that the jazz world realised that a Titan was flexing his muscles.

Will Ravi do the same ? It's unfair to expect anything of the sort and, in any case, it is not what comes out of jazz any more. I once discussed this issue with Wynton Marsalis, when he was a bright young flame on the scene, rather than a senior educator and media personality. He shrugged and said, "Hey, another Bird will come," when asked about where and how a fresh wave of innovation might burst clear of the jazz orthodoxy. Or another Coltrane, perhaps?

There is certainly no agenda involved in Moving Pictures, beyond making a strong and clear-headed record. Coltrane assembled a typically assertive band of New Yorkers to support him. Steve Coleman, that sharp alto saxophonist and motivating force, produced the session and buffed the sound to a handsome, classic shine. Michael Cain, who should be much better known than he is, makes a supremely thoughtful job of the pianist's anchor role.

It is Coltrane himself, though, whom everyone wants to hear. If he sounds much like his father, that might be because every tenor saxophonist of the past 40 years has had to deal with that legacy at some level. The great unsolved question in modern jazz is where John would have gone next, had his early death not brought the quest to an abrupt end. He would surely have been interested to hear the flickers of world beat that Ravi sidles into this album, with the percussion trio Ancient Vibrations adding a polyrhythmic frisson to three tracks. He might have been surprised to find that, for all its contemporary assurance and sometimes cool inscrutability, so much of the music here draws from the same vocabulary as his own immortal quartet. Ravi's patient and unhurried solos are a distillation of that grand passion. He wears it pretty well.

Ravi Coltrane plays at the Camden Jazz Cafe, London, on Wednesday 4 August (tel: 0171-916 6060

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!