Those princes of jazz, Ravi Coltrane and Branford Marsalis, spring from different lineages and represent differing heritages. Yet despite their pedigrees, they’re a breed apart. Both were born in the tumultuous ‘60s, both have struggled with their musical identities and in the intervening years have arrived at a place where they can truly be thought of as musicians who reflect the promise of modern jazz. In an art form so dependent on tradition that many of its practitioners have resorted to neo-classicism (think Wynton) and outright revivalism (Wynton again), Ravi and Branford have sought and discovered combinations of expression, styles and timely sensibility that, like all great art, reflect the moment in which they were created. This means fast-paced, sometimes uncertain striving for resolution with shifts and leaps that are both scheduled and spontaneous. Their uptempo lines of attack spring from the frantic speed of the be-bop tradition, which reflected its post-war times, and its follow up, the post-bop revolution that mirrored the political and cultural upheavals of their childhoods. Both, at times, display the chaotic frenzy of the avant garde. Yet the music of both men can also acknowledge that in these hectic, twisted times there’s a place, even a need, for contemplation, a consideration of beauty and grace, even regret and sorrow. And while there’s a tradition of this in jazz (think of Ravi’s father) the saxophonists bring a certain existential uncertainty to their vision-quest that speaks to the confusion and complications of modern life. The most touching moments from either disc? Ravi’s tribute to his mother, the pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane, with bassist Charlie Haden and harpist Brandee Younger.
Influences are embraced without hip joining. Branford is more Ornette, Ravi more his father. But their sounds and those of past masters won’t be confused. Ravi stick to tenor. Branford adds alto to his quiver and delivers soprano that’s as pure and slippery as quicksilver. Both men take advantage of the collaborative process. Half of Blending Times’ tunes are “improvisations conceived and directed by Ravi Coltrane.” The results, ranging from funk to free-form musings, speak well of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Dress Gess and drummer EJ Strickland. Branford’s recording contains contributions from each of his sidemen and only one—the invigorating “Jabberwocky” –of his own. Pianist Joey Calderazzo contributes the more meditative numbers whose title reflect loss. Drummer Jeff Watts adds the most lively. Bassist Eric Reavis’ stellar tunes pay tribute to Abe Vigoda and Thelonious Monk respectively.
That both recordings contain Monk tunes is a shared acknowledgement of a jazz tradition that their own music most reflects. Monk’s music anticipated the times, indeed all times, with its strange harmonies, twisted themes and resolutions that have a sense of the non-sensical. Of the two discs, we prefer Branford’s even as we dearly love Ravi’s. Recommendation? Get both.–Cabbage Rabbit