By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
The best way to break the ice in a conversation with Ravi Coltrane is to ask him about his sopranino saxophone. While he plays tenor saxophone primarily, he has dabbled in the smallest member of the saxophone family, one rarely heard outside of more adventurous players like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell.
Having seen him play the sopranino at a jazz festival, this writer got a laugh out of Coltrane by asking him about it a few years ago. “I bought the instrument as kind of a lark,” Coltrane said. “It was so difficult to play it in tune that it never left my house for about five years! It has some grit to it.” Performing with trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s group during Winter Jazz Fest 2019, he had clearly mastered the instrument when he pulled it out at the end of the night. But looking for new challenges has been a passion that runs in the family.
His lineage could put him on a musical fast track, but Ravi Coltrane didn’t become a professional tenor saxophonist until he was in his 20s. The son of John and Alice Coltrane, he never got to know his father before the revered tenor saxophonist passed away in 1967. His pianist mother continued recording music, combining spirituality with free flowing jazz. Ravi playing a significant role on her 2004 Translinear Light album, which was both a comeback for her and a swan song, as she died in 2007.
No less than drummer Elvin Jones, his dad’s former powerhouse associate, convinced Ravi he was ready to play in the early ’90s. While his father’s legacy is always at arm’s length (literally, in his case), the younger Coltrane has developed his own musical personality and devoted audience. His September residency at New York’s Village Vanguard was marked by several sold-out nights. His Pittsburgh band features pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Kush Abadey.
While the live performances are one thing, Coltrane expressed hesitancy two years ago about when his next album will appear. “There’s such a flood of jazz recordings. I’d like to get back to making records at some point but I feel like I have to have a reason! Making a record just because you have the opportunity to make a record is not enough of a reason,” he said. Apparently the emphasis on high quality is another family trait.