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The great expectations of saxman Ravi Coltrane

Ravi Coltrane

Michael Weintrob

Expectations are something every recording musician has to face in one form or another.

But for Ravi Coltrane, who just finished work on his first album for Blue Note Records, expectations probably run a little higher than most. It isn't just that his father, legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, recorded the landmark Blue Train for the label in 1957. Last year, Blue Note released only two instrumental jazz albums, Ambrose Akinmusire's The Heart Emerges Glistening, and Joe Lovano/Us Five's Bird Songs; they were ranked at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, on the 2011 Rhapsody jazz critics poll.

Kind of a tough act to follow, all told.

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"Well, there's always a pressure when you're shooting for the unknown," says Coltrane, and laughs. As he speaks, the 46-year-old saxophonist is in Houston, on the early part of a tour that will bring him to Canada this week.

"In this type of music, risks are important for us to grow," he says. "Doing that within the environment of a legendary and historic jazz label like Blue Note, it definitely presented some challenges for me, without a doubt.

"But you're always going to have something in the back of your mind, and it's either going to help you get to where you're going, or kind of keep you treading water. I think I did a little of both on this album."

That may sound a bit self-deprecating, but Coltrane – the son of two jazz legends, John and Alice Coltrane – maintains high standards for himself. His goal isn't just to play well, but to make music that is personal and original even as it honours the tradition and history of jazz music.

"Being an improviser, it's a conundrum today," he says. "You learn all this stuff that has been categorized as jazz music, and unless you learn that we can't really say you're playing jazz." But it can be very tempting simply to reiterate what you've learned, to be an emulator rather than an originator. "There are people who are considered great musicians who only have the strongest ability to just emulate," he says. "They learn quickly, they have enough physical ability to get all this stuff to come out of their instruments, and they can do it in a real-time fashion that feels fluid and new, so it doesn't sound like a guy who's mechanically approaching jazz music."

By contrast, he says, even with players who are able to transform their influences into a personal and original sound, "You're not going to make it happen 100 per cent of the time. You can make it happen at least 50 per cent of the time, but even then, that can be a lot to ask for."

In that sense, he's been lucky to have had a number of such musicians as collaborators over the years. Take, for example, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who'll be with Coltrane's quintet for the upcoming tour. "I've known Ralph and have been playing with him since 1986," he says. "We both were at Cal Arts together, and he was always extremely capable, and extremely aware of the music. You know, some people try to play a certain type of tune, and they try to emulate another guy's sound; Ralph could always sound like himself, no matter what style he was playing or who he was playing with. That blows me away."

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In addition to his own band, Coltrane is in the group Saxophone Summit, along with fellow sax men Joe Lovano – who produced Coltrane's Blue Note debut – and Dave Liebman. "That's such a great group of guys just to be with," he says, "and it encourages you to really try not to copy, not to emulate.

"Primarily, that group functions around the later music of John Coltrane, and that music is so original, it is so involved – much more involved than the exterior of that music often presents itself to the listener. It lends itself to people who get up and find their own ways with the material.

"John Coltrane was not an emulator," he adds, and laughs at the understatement. "He's not considered great because he could play like all his heroes. That's not why we speak about him today."

Ravi Coltrane will perform at the Brock Centre in St. Catharines, Ont., on Feb. 2; the Grand Theatre in Kingston on Feb. 3; and Koerner Hall in Toronto on Feb. 4.

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