Ravi Coltrane, Fourplay take giant steps for jazz

By Robin James
Contributing Writer

Fourplay. Photo courtesy of Concord Music Group

Are you listening? Of course you are. All jazz is contemporary. However, let’s keep it real: Genre labels do exist. Should we just ignore them? Has jazz strayed too far away from its roots? Despite the noise about its ongoing economic misfortune, jazz music as a whole appears to be thriving and is as open to versatility and change as it ever was. Here is some encouraging evidence.

Ravi Coltrane at the Dakota

He is jazz royalty. His Blue Note debut, slated this spring, is one of the most highly anticipated releases to come. Tenor/soprano saxophonist, composer and bandleader Ravi Coltrane signed a recording contract with Blue Note Records in August. Now he heads to the Dakota (Dec. 6-7) and into the studio this month.

In the past five years Blue Note’s jazz signings have included Robert Glasper, Lionel Loueke, Aaron Parks, Ambrose Akinmusire and now Coltrane. You would be hard pressed to find another major label with this kind of commitment to the music.

His father, John Coltrane, will be forever an icon for the Blue Note landmark 1957 album Blue Train, the same recording that inspired Ravi to pick up the sax and develop his own sound. Previously Coltrane recorded for the label as a member of The Blue Note 7, the all-star septet that released the album Mosaic:

A Celebration and performed at Orchestra Hall as part of an extensive North American tour in honor of the label’s 70th anniversary in 2009.

Coltrane continues to lead a short U.S. tour as he prepares material for the new recording with his mainstay quartet (Luis Perdomo on piano, Drew Gress on bass and drummer E.J. Strickland). A stint at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago (Dec. 9-12) is also on his tour list.

As a leader, Coltrane has recorded Moving Pictures (1998), From the Round Box (2000), Mad 6 (2002), In Flux (2005) and Blending Times (2009). His working band is becoming one of the most acclaimed groups in jazz today. For a complete tour schedule, visit www.ravicoltrane.com.

Coltrane was born in Long Island. His mother was keyboardist Alice Coltrane.

He is named after the legendary Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. He resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife Kathleen and their two sons.

Love them in a special way: Fourplay, El Debarge release new music

Shifting gears a bit, “contemporary” jazz supergroup Fourplay has released Let’s Touch the Sky on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group. Their new CD has been number one on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart for three weeks straight and counting. During my early introduction to jazz in the mid-1990s, Fourplay made a lasting impression on me. The new CD has a lot going for it. From start to finish, the music offers pleasurable results.

Fourplay is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Fans may recall the group’s self-titled debut, where they invited El DeBarge to sit in on a remake of Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance.” DeBarge’s new album, Second Chance (Interscope Records), is due November 30. If you caught his soulful performance at the 2010 BET Awards, then you know DeBarge deserves some love (www.eldebarge music.com).

According to the album press release, here are some things about the group that you might not know: Keyboardist Bob James is arguably one of the two or three true inventors of contemporary jazz, the composer if one of the most recognizable TV show themes ever (Taxi), as well as one of the most sampled artists in the world.

Drummer Harvey Mason has provided the beat for some of the most iconic and important million-selling jazz records of all time including Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and work by George Benson and Grover Washington, Jr.

Bassist Nathan East has provided tracks for and toured with some of the most important artists in the world and is a composer of platinum-selling songs.

He also played both President Bill Clinton’s and President Barack Obama’s inaugural celebrations. Guitarist Chuck Loeb is also the composer of the CNN news theme, as well as themes for other TV shows, in addition to a string of number-one hit songs as an artist and producer.

Let’s Touch the Sky features 11 tracks with stellar guest vocal performances by Anita Baker (who appears courtesy of Blue Note Records) and Ruben Studdard.

Studdard’s rendition of “Love TKO” is absolutely stunning. It blew me away.

Baker’s version of “You’re My Thrill” is sung at an extra slow pace and delivered with tender loving care. It rivals Shirley Horn’s take on the tune.

Both songs compliment a CD that could very well provide fans with the perfect musical soundtrack for a winter island getaway, or just a cozy night indoors.

After listening to tracks “Pineapple Getaway,” “I’ll Still Be Lovin’ You,” and “A Night in Rio,” you’ll know what I mean.

It’s hard to pinpoint the standout instruments, wordless vocals, keyboard and guitar work as everyone sounds so well together. “Gentle Giant” pays homage to the late Hank Jones. His artistry and quiet integrity inspired its creation. Harvey Mason’s fluid drum work does the song justice.

Fourplay’s artistry and integrity makes Let’s Touch the Sky yet another reason to embrace the band’s wide range of creativity and admire their growth as a band.

Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com.