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IN PERFORMANCE

Ravi Coltrane leaves his band in the dust at Jazz Showcase

Howard Reich

10:39 AM CDT, September 28, 2012

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Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane has developed into such a distinctive voice that expectations ran high for his return to the Jazz Showcase. All the more because of his important work on his recent Blue Note Records debut, "Spirit Fiction," which showed Coltrane pushing into unconventional, nearly experimental fare.

But the set Coltrane and his quartet played Thursday night at the Showcase, where they're in residence through Sunday, didn't come close to matching the work on the recording or the combustive performance Coltrane led with a superior band at the club in December of 2010 (that group featured bassist Drew Gress, drummer E.J. Strickland and pianist Luis Perdomo).

The trouble, though, did not come from Coltrane's horn. On the contrary, the musician – who's the son of Alice and John Coltrane – produced work on tenor and soprano saxophone that was as subtle in tone and intricate in gesture as one might have hoped. But more often than not, Coltrane's rhythm players were not working at a comparable level of engagement with the material at hand. Or, to put it in other terms, Coltrane brought considerable eloquence and intellectual acuity to every phrase he played, while pianist David Virelles, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Gregory Hutchinson ran hot and cold – and more often the latter than the former.

The disconnect between bandleader and band was apparent from the outset, in Coltrane's "In Three for Thee." Coltrane immediately established his signature tone, an evocative, somewhat breathy sound rich in texture and nuance. But as Coltrane pressed relentlessly forward, the band dragged behind him – rhythmically, tonally, every which way.

The problem resurfaced in Ralph Alessi's "Who Wants Ice Cream," from "Spirit Fiction." Though it would have been unfair to expect this band to match the brilliant interactions that Coltrane and different personnel achieved on the recording, Coltrane's colleagues this time around failed to match their leader's intensity by quite a stretch.

Part of the difficulty rested with pianist Virelles, a sensitive player who proved far too low-key and introspective for much of this music. When the band was playing at full tilt, Virelles nearly disappeared into the sonic background.

Not that there weren't a few more persuasive passages, Drummer Hutchinson, the most keenly motivated of Coltrane's collaborators, turned in some striking solos, especially in Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy." More of this caliber of work during the rest of the set would have helped.

But for the most part, the band lingered behind, as in Coltrane's "The Change, My Girl," from "Spirit Fiction." Every time Coltrane put reed to lip, listeners heard solos built on deeply rewarding phrase-making and a one-of-a-kind tonal luster.

Unfortunately, Coltrane was on his own in this work and many others.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Ravi Coltrane Quartet

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com