Music Review: Ravi Coltrane Quartet at Jazz Standard

March 2nd, 2013

Marcus Yam for The New York Times

The Ravi Coltrane Quartet plays at the Jazz Standard this week, with cuts from his album “Spirit Fiction.”

In the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s new album, “Spirit Fiction” (Blue Note), he works with two different groups, destabilizing the idea that he has a current group sound, or maybe enlarging it. In his Jazz Standard run he’s pushing the idea further, playing with three different bands over the course of a six-day week. The third one, playing this weekend, is as close as it gets to his latest going concern.

But Thursday was the first night of the second band, a pianoless quartet playing hard, articulate and open-ended music; it included the trumpeter Tim Hagans, the bassist Christian McBride and the drummer Bill Stewart. This isn’t a working band, and maybe it never should be. It’s too good as it is, without an agenda or a pattern.

Rather than protecting and refining anything particular, the four musicians — who took the stage on Thursday without having rehearsed or sound-checked — were exploring their possibilities without set arrangements or a fixed outcome. The music grew out of very little, pushing forward almost entirely through playing rather than through material, the two horns riding over an extraordinary rhythm section; it quickly became exciting and didn’t flag.

The set started on a version of the serious-minded ballad “Wise One,” by Mr. Coltrane’s father, John Coltrane, and built up from a tentative start. The performance may have alluded in passing to John Coltrane’s strong tone and headlong momentum, but not to any of his pet phrases or rhythmic feel; Ravi’s long solo ranged around the beat in precise chunks of phrasing.

Heard in the widest context, never mind as a homage and never mind the family implications — the younger Coltrane didn’t play much of the elder’s music until recent years — the performance avoided a lot of possible problems: it was full of forceful but not grandiose playing; it had modernity, humility and patience; it thought through a stately song without getting trapped by its mood.

As the piece started loosely, as a theme unmoored by a steady rhythm, it ended like that too, the whole group simmering down until there was nothing left to say. The audience paused for a while at the end, maybe five seconds or more, processing what it had just heard before starting its applause. You don’t experience that often in a jazz club.

The rest of the set included a version of Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and two tracks from “Spirit Fiction”: Ralph Alessi’s “Who Wants Ice Cream” and Paul Motian’s “Fantasm” — but the material was secondary to the playing: both of those songs reveal themselves with a reluctant composing hand, as if they were coalescing by themselves.

In “Who Wants Ice Cream” a sprint switched, halfway through, into a stroll, and during the slower section Mr. McBride played strong, articulated walking lines, staring at Mr. Stewart to lock in with him; Mr. Stewart kept building new, improvised drum patterns over a steady swing, one after the other, counterintuitively smashing the snare and high-hat during what was notionally the song’s relaxed pocket.

Mr. Coltrane played fluidly but he didn’t dominate; it was powerful music, but not full of its own glory. It resisted premade frames and made its own.

The Ravi Coltrane Quartet, with David Virelles, Dezron Douglas and Johnathan Blake, plays Saturday and Sunday at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan; (212) 576-2232,

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