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Friday, July 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jazz Etc.

Young Coltrane walked own path, wound up where John had been

Seattle Times jazz critic

The first thing you need to know about Ravi Coltrane is that when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, playing clarinet in the school orchestra and listening to Stevie Wonder and the Beatles, no one knew him as John Coltrane's son.

"Are you kidding?" asked the 41-year-old saxophonist. "It was the '70s. I was just a kid, riding my bike around, having a good time. Maybe every three years or so, someone would say, 'Coltrane. Wasn't he a famous blues singer?' "

Coltrane performs with his quartet Thursday through July 29 at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley ($24.50; 206-441-9729 or www.jazzalley.com).

The second thing you need to know about Coltrane is that he didn't decide to play jazz until his late teens. As a kid, he was more into classical music and film scores.

"I told my mother I wanted to go to film school," he said. "There was no presumption of who I was going to be. Of course I heard my father's music and my mother's music my whole life. But it was only when I was 18, 19, 20 that I could finally hear it. It was like a secret little thing. I was enjoying it so much as a listener, I picked up the horn. It just sort of happened organically."

When he finally decided to study jazz at the California Institute for the Arts, "the boulder dropped," he says. "Oh, my God! 'John Coltrane's son.' Nobody had ever responded to me in that way. If I had that kind of treatment growing up, it's unlikely I'd be playing the saxophone."

Normally, such extramusical issues are a tiresome diversion, but with Coltrane, it's important to clear the air. Yes, he's John Coltrane's son. But the saxophone — and jazz — found him, not the other way around.

In some ways, though it sounds odd and even disingenuous to say it, he's like any other young musician suddenly smitten by John Coltrane. He never knew his dad (who died when he was 2) and his mother, Alice, who died in January, played piano at home but was retired from public performance when he grew up. (Alice's harp-playing and interest in spirituality both profoundly influenced the elder Coltrane.)

If anything, Coltrane's story speaks to a species of stubbornness, in the best sense, that can be heard in the earnest, focused, patient quality of his music. A thoroughly schooled player, Coltrane negotiates the complex, extended chord changes of contemporary jazz with relaxed aplomb, flapping through the harmonies with a sweet, light touch. His sound has that familiar cry, yes, but it is also airier, softer-edged and less urgent than other saxophonists touched by his father.

On his album, "In Flux," Coltrane twice explores, but very succinctly and slowly, the theme "Tranesonic," from John Coltrane's 1967 album, "Stellar Regions."

Coltrane is attracted to "the energy of that free style of playing," he says, as well as the cinematic music of Wayne Shorter, whose "United" ignites the best playing on the album.

In Seattle, Coltrane performs with one of the most exciting piano players in jazz, Luis Perdomo; E.J. Strickland is on drums; Massimo Biolcati, bass.

Coltrane runs his own record label, RKM, which has issued albums by the wonderful trumpeter Ralph Alessi and guitarist David Gilmore, among others. With jazz in the commercial doldrums — and the culture seemingly obsessed by trivial commerce — Coltrane says the most important thing he can do is encourage artistic freedom.

Will the outlook for jazz improve?

"These things go in waves," he replied. "The tides move in, the tides move out."

Ravi Coltrane is in for the long haul.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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