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Ravi Coltrane live and on CD.

By Jon Garelick

APRIL 20, 1998:  The Ravi Coltrane Quintet's performance at Scullers last Wednesday night was such a rag-tag mess that I had to refer to their new album just to make sure my first impressions hadn't been deranged. Nope, it was all there, all the stuff that I'd fallen in love with in the first place: the sharp counterpoint between tenor-saxophonist Coltrane (yes, John's son) and trumpeter Ralph Alessi, the delicate comping and astute solo work by pianist Michael Cain, the compositional balance of each piece. On Moving Pictures (RCA), you always feel the music is going somewhere, through shifting textures and tempos, beautifully negotiated harmonies -- narrative development in song. The rhythm section cooks, and Coltrane's playing style, though understated, is nonetheless poised, confident, full-bodied. He and his music give the sense of knowing what they're about. Unlike God knows how many other similar mainstreamy jazz guys in suits, Coltrane seems to have his own identity (a doubly impressive feat when you consider the burden of his family line).

So let me get the bad news of the live performance out of the way before digging back into the particular joys of the album. Granted, I caught only the second of two sets that night, and the rhythm section of the album (the seasoned team of bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts) had been replaced by Darryl Hall and Steve Hass. There are a lot of ways to establish a groove, both rhythmically and harmonically, but the band were having none of it. Coltrane and Alessi operated pretty much free of chord changes, and though Hass was impressively busy, he never covered the bottom. Sometimes structure itself is the groove, and without it Coltrane and Alessi sounded like nothing more than talented noodlers. The tunes included two from the album -- the original "Tones for Jobe Kain" and Horace Silver's "Peace" -- as well as a few Coltrane Sr.-associated tunes: "Body and Soul," "All Blues," "Countdown." But the fragmentary, lackluster readings made me grateful for Cain's sustained, if more conventional, boppish piano solo on "Countdown."

There's no need to pray for convention on Moving Pictures. It's a beautifully orchestrated album (produced by Steve Coleman), beginning and ending with a dark horns-and-percussion piece, and covering a variety of moods and textures in between, several of the pieces seguing into each other with barely a break. The album fades in with the slap and pop of the percussion trio Ancient Vibrations, along with the steady throb of Plaxico's bass. Coltrane enters with a short melodic line built from a simple, angular, rhythmic motif -- it's a fragment of bop. Alessi soon follows, the two horns spin dark interlocking lines around each other, and the velocity and volume build until the piece ends cold to make way for Coltrane's lovely ballad "Narcine." It's a dramatic 2:35, and Coltrane and Alessi cover each other's tracks -- as they do on the album version of "Tones for Jobe Kain" -- like an ebonized version of Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker.

In the club, Coltrane's understatement came across as diffidence, but on the album everything sounds. His assured solo on "Narcine" spins over an exquisite medium-slow groove by Plaxico and Watts. Cain lays out until the end of Coltrane's solo, then comes in with a rubato first statement. He strolls forward in easy single-note phrases, breathes with rests, picks up intensity with block chords, meditates in the lower register for a bit, all with Plaxico moving in and and out of a steady walk.

There's a loose waltz ("In Three for Thee") with Coltrane on soprano; Silver's "Peace"; McCoy Tyner's "Search for Peace" (again with Ancient Vibrations); the spry original modal workout "Mixed Media"; another fine ballad original for soprano, "High Windows"; an urgent "Inner Urge" (by Joe Henderson) with an invigorated Steve Coleman on alto; Wayne Shorter's "When You Dream," a wonderful ballad for tenor and piano; and the percussion outro.

The Scullers gig is best forgot, but Moving Pictures gets better on every listen. Ravi (soft-spoken and charming on stage and after the show) is working his father's legacy, but what 32-year-old tenor player isn't? In his use of counterpoint and texture, and in his own thoughtful, probing improvisations, he's also learned something from Coleman (whose band he's played in). Now that he's played most notably with Elvin Jones and Coleman, Ravi Coltrane's debut could be the beginning of his own legacy. I'd even see him live again.

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