Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Ravi, Rene, Joshua, Femi… Steps away from their father’s track

THERE is now a whole new generation of musicians who do not embrace the ‘like father, like son’ syndrome where the children lean on their parents’ music for impact and survival. Among them are Rene McLean, the son of Jackie McLean; Joshua Redman, son of Dewey Redman; Ravi Coltrane, son of John Coltrane; Femi Kuti, son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti among others. Common to all of them is the fact that they all play jazz and jazz-inspired music; and their parents are dead. They believe in self expression from self development. Stepping out of their parents’ shadows, they are determined to find and establish their own individual voices.
Worthy of appraisal are Femi Kuti’s Afrobeat exploits, which stand out as original performances even in the face of the overwhelming influence of his father. True, his music has its roots deep in his father’s Afrobeat; and why not? He was nurtured by Fela’s Egypt 80 Band where, as sideman, he played the alto saxophone, soloing and contributing to melodic themes until he formed the Positive Force. So remarkably original is his approach that he attracted attention for a “Grammy” nomination.

Perhaps the youngman who is truly finding his own voice despite the profound influence of his parents is the tenor and soprano saxophone player, Ravi Coltrane. The son of the late John Coltrane (who also doubled on soprano and tenor saxophone) and pianist Alice Coltrane, Ravi was not even two years old when his father died in 1967, but he was in his early 20s, when he seriously started playing jazz.
His father’s music was a big influence even though he did not grow up to play with him. His mother fed him on the music, playing it and explaining its intricacies to the young Ravi, who was made to understand early in his life that his father was the real saxophone colossus; the dean of the faculty of avant-garde.
Notwithstanding, Ravi Coltrane now sounds closer to Brandford Marsalis and Joe Henderson. He picked up valuable experience playing with Elvin Jones’ band during 1991-93 and has since performed as a sideman with many top musicians including Geri Allen, Kenny Barron and Cindy Blackman.
However, Ravi Coltrane’s maturity – his prowess on the saxophone as well as his increasing ease with leading and collaborating – has come a long way since he took the plunge as a novice player at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in 1986, and made his bonafide launch into the jazz scene as a member of Elvin Jones’ band in 1991. He’s stepping out of the shadow of being John and Alice Coltrane’s offspring and casting his own shadow over the jazz world.
At 43, Ravi seems poised to break out. The urgency evident in his recent Birdland performances underlines his personal commitment to his horn. “I didn’t want to be an improviser because I’m John Coltrane’s son,” he says, “but because I love to improvise. It’s why I love John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Wayne shorter. We gravittate to it, and it consumes us.”
But his last name still induces a suspicious pause with some jazz aficionados who think and honestly believe that the son of Coltrane would have had an easier time securing a stand in the fold. His father’s name is as big as the entire modern jazz activity. The name is an institution, but Ravi modestly balks at the notion of being an opportunist set to lay claim to a hereditary throne.
“I want to be as personal as I can”, he says. “To respect and honour musicians and their legacy – whether it’s John Coltrane, Lester Young or Dexter Gordon – you can’t copy their sound. You can trace their roots and see they are in the shape of their development, but you can’t be a copycat. The only means to create something new is to become inspired and express it in a personal way.”
Ravi has developed a distinctive way of playing. And, from his recent accomplishments it can easily be observed that he is not necessarily interested in being a trail-blazer like his father. He appears to be more interested in contributing to the legacy of improvised music.
Notwithstanding, Ravi has been through a rough time in the last couple of years. The dust has yet to fully settle from a series of the shifting tremors, some joyous, others calamitous. His second son, Aaron, was born two and a half years ago, but six months after the child’s birth, his mother and mentor, Alice Coltrane, died of heart failure while they were putting finishing touches to their final album – the follow-up to her 2004 triumphant return to recording after a 26-year-old hiatus, Translinear Light, which Ravi produced.
Ravi is still mourning. While he never knew his father personally, he was close to his mother, even though they lived on separate coasts. While she was his great inspirer, he served as the prime motivator for her to return to the jazz world. It began in 1998 when he asked her to join him and his band at Town Hall in New York as the opening act for Ravi Shankar.

Privileged to watch Rene and his father Jackie McLean on the same stand at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2004, I observed the two sounded miles part in tonal conception and style. While his father’s solos followed the conventional pattern with which he teamed up with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (with Horace Silver on piano, Donald Byrd on trumpet and Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone) – in the late 50s, McLean was nevertheless admired and considered revolutionary at the time because he deviated from the Charlie Parker direction. However his son, Rene sounded more progressive, imbibing a variety of influences he hoped to fuse into his own to forge a definite direction for himself.

Although he was one of the great avant-garde tenors, the late Dewey Redman never received anywhere near the acclaim that his son, Joshua Redman gained in the 1990s even though, ironically, Dewey was an innovative player.
The entire jazz media went out of its way to make Joshua Redman its darling in 1991. Events have since proved that this media support was not a hype and that it was well deserved.
Not leaning on the avant-garde approach of his father, Joshua is a talented loop-based player whose fluidity has continued to intrigue jazz critics. In the main, Joshua is a throwback to the styles of Red Holloway and Gene Ammons, but he also has an inquisitive spirit and can play intriguing music when inspired.
Unlike what is happening in popular music where some musicians are just furthering the legacies of their parents, jazz musicians are poised to create their own paths. Rather than bask in all the glory of their parent’s lineage, they are discovering themselves. And because they are eager to learn, they are articulating in different ways and reaching out with distinctively different voices.

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