Coltrane and Cousin: Giant Steps, Lotus Leaps
I spent part of my summer vacation in New York with two living branches of the Coltrane family tree. Ravi Coltrane is the respected, bespectacled sax-playing son of John and Alice, and the namesake of Ravi Shankar. Ravi’s cousin, Steven Ellison, whose grandmother wrote “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross, is the producer, laptop musician and cosmic voyager better known as Flying Lotus. So why was I thinking about an Irishman in a bar?
The Irishman used to show up at concerts I attended. He was fluent in a wide variety of musical styles. But he had precisely two musical opinions. After a show, he would down a pint or ten and proclaim the performers “bloody brilliant” or “bloody awful.” Asked to elaborate, he might add another “bloody” or two for emphasis. This could be frustrating, but I also admired his complete confidence in his beliefs.
There’s a bit of the Irishman in me when it comes to John Coltrane, because his music often leaves me muttering “bloody brilliant.” The only passable thing I’ve ever been able to write about him was to transcribe to limericks all the tracks on Coltrane’s Live at Birdland album. Coltrane’s horn cuts dangerously close to my sense of what it feels like to be human. Ask me about love, and I cue A Love Supreme. Ask me about justice, and I hear the stirring “Alabama.” Ask me about my work ethic, and I conjure the chord changes in “Giant Steps.” Ask me about God, and I squawk my way through the otherworldly clamor of Ascension and Meditations. Ask me if I remember laughter and…okay, I think of Tiny Tim and Brave Combo’s swing-tempo version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” But Coltrane had just about every other human emotion covered, and we can’t all be comedians.
Playing live in New York (at Birdland, no less) and on albums such as In Flux, Ravi finds inspiration in both John and Alice, and plays some top-shelf post-bop and ballads. But Ravi also deserves credit for finding his own path. While he can breathe new fire into papa’s “Giant Steps,” he’s just as likely to cover Ornette Coleman’s “Tribes of New York.” He also draws liberally from his years of cross-cultural improvisation as a member of Steve Coleman‘s M-Base Collective.
Ravi’s range serves him well when collaborating with his cousin on the lush soundscapes of Flying Lotus, whose special guests also include fellow travelers Thom Yorke of Radiohead and harpist Rebekah Raff. Much of what passes for “innovative” electronica these days leaves me stone cold bored, and I’m not yet ready to proclaim Flying Lotus the Coltrane of the laptop. Still, the most adventurous parts of 2010’s Cosmogramma suggest Ellison has the vision and nerve to bring uncharted parts of interstellar space to the next generation. And if that isn’t bloody brilliant, it’s getting pretty close.
[Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder site has posted a soulful summer mix.]
Ravi Coltrane, “Tribes of New York”
Flying Lotus, “German Haircut” (featuring Ravi Coltrane)
Flying Lotus, “And the World Laughs With You” (featuring Thom Yorke)