Saxophonist John Coltrane’s saxophonist son playing with the bassist son of Coltrane Quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison might impress cynics as a gimmick, but everyone who heard the fireworks their ad-hoc trio (and, eventually, quartet) set off at this concert knows that it’s as far from a gimmick as can be. It is, instead, two friends who have known each other since childhood taking advantage of their deep rapport to create a music of intuitive reactions that is a very modern descendent of what their dads were doing half a century ago.
Originally, Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison were scheduled to work with veteran drummer Jack DeJohnette, but the latter canceled due to a minor illness. Having heard what Jojo Mayer achieved with them on short notice, it was hard to feel disappointed by the change. DeJohnette has more star power, and he is certainly one of the greats, but my gut instinct is that Mayer, from the same generation as the co-leaders, is more naturally on their wavelength.
Their set kicked off with Garrison, one of the masterminds behind the new venue ShapeShifter Lab, playing chords on his electric bass that were so fatly sustained that he sounded like a synthesizer. Coltrane, on tenor sax, then entered very atmospherically, conveying a free-jazz feeling even while playing tonally, then getting a little wilder with some ululating lines. Mayer’s entrance began with disjointed sounds that gradually cohered into a slow, steady beat. As Coltrane began playing more actively, Garrison switched to more horizontal bass lines, but displayed so many different timbres that he in no way seemed subordinate as Coltrane reached a fever pitch.
When Coltrane dropped out for a bass and drums duet, Garrison’s instrument was vibrating the snare; the one problem with ShapeShifter Lab’s space is that the room is a little too hard-surfaced for such low-frequency high volume, but this was a tiny and temporary flaw. Garrison played like a guitarist, but then, he was playing bass guitar, not upright bass, and taking full advantage of the greater sonic flexibility it offers, including heavy effects pedals at times. Garrison and Mayer then meshed into a funky groove, but abandoned it when Coltrane came back in with fleet, post-bop nimbleness as Garrison threw in some spicy double stops. The rhythm kept shifting, moving into a sort of a hard shuffle, then double-timing it, followed by a bunch of abrupt shifts under prominent bass with occasional sax interjections – it sounded like they were playing games with each other, throwing out surprises to see how the others would react, whether they could keep up, which of course they could, because it was clear that this was a group of top-notch players and musical thinkers.
The next piece opened with a drum solo, though the other players occasionally interjected. Then Coltrane began playing more in little bits, though Mayer was still at the forefront of the sound, laying down a funky asymmetrical beat. After Garrison became more active, Coltrane dropped out; I thought I heard a snippet of Monk's "Evidence." Then the piece reverted to a drum solo, and the beat was deconstructed into something more shambolic for awhile. But when Coltrane returned, it was over a clear 9/4 beat (Garrison, meanwhile, was again playing with a synth-like tone). Coltrane moved to longer tones, and then Garrison soloed over his own accompaniment for a little while. Coltrane rejoined with incantatory fervor. Garrison then soloed over his own drone, with a bit of electronic distortion briefly intruding as he played at the edge of the equipment's capabilities. After Mayer re-entered with a cymbal beat, there was a very spare communal improvisation that gradually heated up, with the density increasing proportionally; Coltrane navigated the new soundscape with wonderful fluidity. When Garrison shifted into a fast walking line, Coltrane gave us a glimpse of his father's style, but returned to his own quicksilver style as the music evolved into fiery free energy music that ended abruptly.
Garrison started the next piece with what sounded like triggered samples, edgy droney stuff he soloed over; there was even a sample that sounded backwards. Mayer joined with a sort of martial beat. Garrison's spacey sound recalled the timbres of Bill Frisell's '90s stuff. Coltrane entered with a serpentine melody; this was much more of a continuous piece, maybe even composed, nearly a ballad, and definitely beautiful.
The leader of the opening band, guitarist David Fiuczynski, joined the trio for the next piece, playing his double-neck guitar. He created shimmering loops (or long echoes), tart soundscapes with little bits on top. As the others joined in, there was a sense of suspension, of the music hanging delicately in the air. I was reminded of the great lost trio of the '80s, Power Tools (Frisell, Melvin Gibbs, Shannon Jackson) -- if they'd added a saxophonist. I wasn't close enough to see Fiuczynski's instrument, but it seemed that the top neck was fretless; at least, that was the neck where he played his microtonal parts (more on that below). He delivered some of that microtonal slipperiness over a bass/drums groove, then threw in some good upward-moving chords under Coltrane's outside solo. Garrison then soloed over guitar and drums with fierce ecstasy. When it was time for Fiuczynski's solo, he returned to the top neck ; then, when Garrison and Mayer constructed a nearly boppish backdrop, he switched to the fretted lower neck for a stratospheric solo. When the music morphed into a drum solo over Garrison's drone, Fiuczynski contributed sustained coruscating chords. As the piece came to a close, a familiar theme I couldn't quite place popped up.
All four returned for an encore. Mayer started it with a polyrhythmic funk beat. At first Coltrane and Garrison went back and forth; then Ravi developed a more continuous part as Fiuczynski chorded with tart dissonances and jabs, inciting the saxophonist to wail. For an improvised encore with a guest, it was astoundingly tight. When it was the guitarist's turn to solo, he played on the fretted neck over bass and drums, recalling the late, great Sonny Sharrock for a moment. Mayer's solo was an unegotistical groove with hard accents added, but just as satisfying (or more) as flashy bashing. Coltrane returned to his incantatory mode, playing off-beat accents while Fiuczynski deployed his wah-wah pedal. They wound down with some back-and-forth capped with a head and a coda. Here's hoping this of-the-moment quartet reconvenes at some point!
I must admit that I enjoyed Fiuczynski more in this context than with his own quintet, a microtonally oriented project that was celebrating the release of its new album, Planet Microjam. Unfortunately, their early start time (well in advance of the 8 PM start that seemed indicated), meant that I arrived after they'd already been playing for a while, but enough to hear how unsettling that much microtonality is. From Fiuczynski and the violinist it was not so weird; a bit of microtonality from those instruments is not so far from their norm. But the keyboardist's microtones were very disturbing! Also, they would got through sections that weren't microtonal and then switch, which never failed to shock. I didn't catch the names of most band members, but did hear that the drummer was Alex Bailey; his beats were often as slippery as the pitch, in a way, which was kind of fascinating. I did enjoy the last piece, based on part of Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto No. 5. The fleet, slippery guitar and violin solos were both the most attractive parts and the most virtuosic. The bassist's skittering playing was too unclear to project well, too muddy.
For what it's worth, my wife, who accompanied me on this excursion, didn't find the microtonality odd at all; of course, it's all a matter of conditioning. I will spend some time with their CD and report further, eventually. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.