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)

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

5 thoughts on “Coltrane and Cousin: Giant Steps, Lotus Leaps

  1. Bloody brilliant, mate. Ravi’s a great player. Flying Lotus = John Coltrane + Pink Floyd or something. Hearing the Radiohead too.

    Are Ravi and Ellison your cousins? What’s the connection?

  2. Flying Lotus/ Steven Ellison is Alice Coltrane’s great-nephew, and Ravi Coltrane’s cousin. My cousin is a tax lawyer.

    Here’s the Flying Lotus remix of Radiohead’s “Reckoner”:

  3. OK, but what is the connection between your cousin the tax lawyer and the Flying Coltranes family tree? i.e. how did you end up spending time with these guys?

  4. Glad you asked. He managed the accounts of an acrobat with the Flying Karamazov Brothers, who once sat in on a recording session with the Flying Lizards, which reminded him of a trip to Joshua Tree with the Flying Burrito Brothers. The acrobat later opened a taqueria whose cheese came from a dairy farm owned by a former roadie for Chi Coltrane, who is from Wisconsin and white.

    Glad I could clear that up for you.

  5. The Chi Coltrane i knew was from Maui and cultivated bromeliads…

    Wonderful check in w/ Ravi Coltrane. Love his work w/ Steve Coleman, but then i always love Steve Coleman…bloody brilliant.

    I’m digging Flying Lotus now too…Cosmogramma has sounded so chaotic to me before, but then watching the video for “German Haircut”, it suddenly made sense…

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