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András Schiff at Carnegie Hall

Ravi Coltrane Trio plays the Jazz Standard

by Nick Stubblefield

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The Jazz Standard is an ideal venue to hear jazz, thanks to its very dry acoustics and intimate confines. In the front row, you won’t hear artificial or natural reverb, and you won’t notice the amplification through the house PA, either. Instead, you’ll appreciate the warm, organic wooden resonance from the upright bass, the subtle, breathy vibrato from Coltrane’s tenor, and the extra sparkle from the ride cymbals.

Saxophone royalty Ravi Coltrane played the Jazz Standard this week, where he took on double duty playing melody and supporting harmonic fills. With the support from his rhythm section, he played a dynamic show that entranced, excited, and soothed.

There is something raw and bare-bones about a jazz saxophone trio. Without a keyboard or guitar to flesh out the chords and harmonic structure, the warm timbre of a tenor sax is more exposed to the listener. When the air passing through the instrument is more audible, the final sound is more humanlike, and in that the saxophonist can produce beautiful musical expression.

Coltrane’s trio got down to business straight away with an uptempo ditty that defied precise classification. There were elements of swing, funk, and bebop, but the groove of the tune just kept changing, which kept this listener engaged and guessing what might come next. It wasn’t “free jazz,” the brand his famous father sold, but that free-spirited, post-modern edge was present. It’s essential for improvisational musicians to stay communicative with each other, and Coltrane’s trio maintained a Vulcan mind-meld throughout the set — and some of the best use of body language I’ve seen in a group. At points, Ravi would even step off to the side to let his rhythm section shine, but would still face his bandmates, not the audience.

Ravi

Photo by Deborah Feingold for NPR.org

Donning festive attire and a smile cheek to cheek, bassist Dezron Douglas radiated a relaxed, smooth charm throughout the night. He filled his solos with dizzying tension when he played in the upper register. Drummer Allan Mednard held down sophisticated grooves in various meters, his contribution culminating in a roaring solo on the night’s closer.

After the first few numbers, the soft-spoken Ravi thanked his audience, announced the next couple of tunes — the last of which was his composer mom Alice Coltrane’s original – and elicited a chuckle from the audience when he stated “before that, we played some…other music.” Each of the final two pieces evoked the far east — no doubt influenced in part by his namesake, the sitarist and Indian musician Ravi Shankar. On Alice Coltrane’s tune, mid-piece, Ravi swapped his tenor for a tiny Sopranino Sax. Its high-pitched whine further evoked an Eastern influence.

Lots of jazz groups produce great music, but the Ravi Coltrane Trio exemplifies the magic that happens when a group operates on the same musical wavelength. It’s all about communication.

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