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Sifting Through the '60s

*** RAVI COLTRANE "Moving Pictures" RCA/BMG

*** BRIAN BLADE "Brian Blade Fellowship" Blue Note

*** AVISHAI COHEN "Adama" Stretch

April 05, 1998|Don Heckman

The '90s have been a neoclassical period for jazz, as many of the so-called "Young Lions" following in Wynton Marsalis' footsteps have rigorously addressed themselves to the reexamination of the bop and hard bop styles of the late '40s, '50s and early '60s.

As the decade (and the century) moves to a close, a second wave of young players continues to turn to the postwar years for inspiration. But the focus of influence has moved past hard bop into the '60s, into the music of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and, above all, John Coltrane.

No single artist possesses a more legitimate connection with Coltrane than his saxophone-playing son, Ravi Coltrane. Although he was not quite 2 years old when his father died in 1967, Coltrane seems to have been inexorably drawn to the same instruments--tenor and soprano saxophones--and, increasingly as he has matured, the same creative perspective favored by his father.

Coltrane has performed with, among others, drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Steve Coleman. For his RCA debut as a leader, he is superbly supported by a solid rhythm section consisting of drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and pianist Michael Cain, with trumpeter Ralph Alessi joining Coltrane in the front line.

Coltrane's sound, especially in his softer, ballad playing, is sometimes almost eerily reminiscent of his father's tone. But he appears determined to find a way of articulating his own voice. On some of the edgier tracks, a few of which add a group of Jamaican percussionists, there is the sense of a kind of Coltrane continuation taking place, an intense, probing improvisational style which adds the son's contemporary perspective to the father's archetypal musical model.

Drummers don't always make the best bandleaders. Those who function most effectively in the role--Jack DeJohnette is a good example--facilitate as much as they lead. Carefully avoiding the easy path of using their instrument to dominate the proceedings, they instead create a provocative musical environment, one which makes it possible for the players to function openly, freely and creatively.

Brian Blade--best known, perhaps, for his work with Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett, but a veteran also of recordings with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell--has produced a carefully crafted, musically eclectic outing for his maiden Blue Note recording.

The ensemble sound mixes two saxophones, rhythm section and an unusual combination of two guitars (one of them a pedal steel instrument played by Dave Easley). The music (with all but one track composed by Blade) makes imaginative use of the available textures, while still allowing the soloists--especially tenor saxophonist Melvin Butler--to soar freely. And Blade, with rare musical discretion, pulls everything together with constantly shifting, musically contributory drumming.

Israeli-born Avishai Cohen has played with pianist Danilo Perez, singer Nnenna Freelon and, currently, with pianist Chick Corea. Like Blade, he is a talented eclectic, featuring the Middle Eastern oud on several tracks.

With two powerful soloists--soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and trombonist Steve Davis--in the front line, Cohen's straight-ahead tunes simmer with drive and energy. His compositions, filled with sudden harmonic shifts, bass counterlines and disjunct rhythms are the product of a compositional vision that reveals considerable promise for expansion. And his playing--listen, for example, to the unexpected romp through "Besame Mucho" with pianist Brad Mehldau--is based upon a sturdy jazz foundation.

Like Coltrane and Blade, Cohen is doing more than recycling styles of the past. Individually and collectively, the three gifted young players are opting instead for a process of remolding, reshaping and rediscovery, for inspiration rather than imitation.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).

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