It's shaping up to be a year of changes for saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. For starters, Coltrane, who opened yesterday and performs through Saturday at Jazz at the Bistro (3536 Washington Avenue, 314-534-3663), has put his long-running quartet, featuring pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland, on hiatus. "That group is still in existence, as it has been since 2003," explained Coltrane, "but we're taking a little time off this year. I'm trying to explore some different possibilities, form different groups, and change the repertoire up a little bit.
"There are great benefits of having a working unit that really can lift the music up," he continued. "But at the same time, there also are things that are inherent in that type of relationship - certain expectations, a certain amount of leniency or latitude. When something new doesn't work out, you can always fall back on something that's older, especially when the next thing is challenging or not so clear. I'm trying to do whatever I can to shake things up for myself."
For his run at the Bistro, Coltrane will be joined by a band featuring guitarist David Gilmore, who he first met in the 1990s when both were associated with saxophonist Steve Coleman's M-Base collective. "The gravity of Steve Coleman attracted a lot of different types of players," said Coltrane. "So we kind of came together because of Steve, but eventually found our own way of relating to each other. He's one of the greatest guitarists out there, in my opinion," he added, calling Gilmore "an incredible improviser and composer."
Gilmore, who's played with artists ranging from the legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter to pop singer Joss Stone, is the only guitarist that Coltrane has featured in his own group. "I do love the extra space, harmonically speaking," he said. "It's like having another horn, but you also have the ability to clear out the cobwebs a bit." Also on board at the Bistro will be Joe Sanders, a young bassist originally from Milwaukee who's played with dozens of well-known jazz musicians since moving to New York a few years ago, and drummer Johnathan Blake, son of jazz violinist John Blake, Jr. and a player that Coltrane says "has kind of been in my view for a long time."
Another change in 2012 is that Coltrane also has a new record coming out later this year, his first since 2009's Blending Times and the first release under his new contract with the famed Blue Note label. The album, set for release in June, will include tracks featuring Coltrane with Perdomo, Gress and Strickland that were recorded early in 2011, plus additional music recorded in the fall with a quintet including trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus and drummer Eric Harland.
The three-year gap between recordings can be explained in part by the fact that the saxophonist's new compositions didn't come easily. "It was a challenging year for me," said Coltrane, and one that left him "trying to embrace a different philosophy about original compositions."
"For some, it just seems to pour out. For me, it's something that I have to battle, to struggle with. It can be painful, and I'm trying to get some past some of the roadblocks I've had in the last couple of years."
A performance with the quintet at NYC's Zinc Bar just before recording sessions for the CD offered Coltrane a glimpse of one possible way forward: simply letting go. "Something happened on that gig that really shifted my way of thinking, my way of approaching things within the group," he said.
"I'd heard about it all my life - when my dad [the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane] had the band with Elvin [Jones] and McCoy [Tyner], that band never rehearsed. They came together very organically on the bandstand."
Coltrane experienced a similar phenomenon at that quintet performance last fall. "We had one day everyone was available, and we thought about doing a rehearsal, but then turned it into a gig," he explained. "The audience loved it, and things came out that never would have come out in a rehearsal room. On the stage, you have to just go. That really gave me a charge, gave me something to think about, and I've been trying to incorporate that thinking into a lot of the gigs I've done since."
The saxophonist seemed to relish the opportunity to explore his new ensemble, repertoire and attitude over several nights at the Bistro. "A multi-night engagement is rare these days in music, but several generations ago it was less rare. Why did that music progress the way it did? They were playing every night - three, four, five different sets a night - and not traveling. The music can really develop that way."