It’s been a little more than two decades since saxophonist Ravi Coltrane fully broke into the top-shelf jazz world (as a member of drummer Elvin Jones’s Jazz Machine), thus finally overcoming the daunting task of emerging from the shadow of his father, jazz god John Coltrane (who passed when Ravi was two). Now in his 40s, Coltrane continues to develop as an artist; for demonstration of his singular tenor/soprano saxophone voice and his creativity and intimacy as a leader, look no further than his superb Blue Note Records debut, Spirit Fiction. He employs two primo bands as the anchors of the sessions: one, his longtime quartet of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland and the quintet he used on his 2002 sophomore album From the Round Box; the other, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Eric Harland.
Produced by Joe Lovano, Blue Note’s modern-day tenor titan, Spirit Fiction shows how forward-thinking Coltrane has become as he continues to steer clear of standard formulas and aims straight for imaginative contrasts and convergences. He experiments with tunes developed by disparate layers of improvisation, notably on the doubleheader of the scrambling “Roads Cross” and the sprightly “Cross Roads”, where pairs of players from his quartet are recorded individually with the results spliced together. Coltrane also opts to record in a variety of instrumental formats, including duo (“Spring & Hudson,” an original with Strickland that bursts with brio), trio (a redolent take on Paul Motian’s “Fantasm” with Lovano and Allen), and sextet (as Lovano joins in again with the quintet’s rollicking-to-reflective spin through Ornette Coleman’s “Check Out Time”).
On Coltrane’s ballad “the change, my girl,” his tenor delivers a lyrical mix of melancholy and joy, and on the three Alessi-penned tunes, the two ebulliently converse and criss-cross. As a saxophonist, Coltrane may not be a flashy, blow-with-bravado type, but his playing communicates on levels ranging from the vigorous to the ruminative. Spirit Fiction is yet another giant step in his maturation.