The past few seasons have been transformative for saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.
In December of 2010, he led his quartet in the most explosive, free-wheeling set he had yet played in Chicago, at the Jazz Showcase.
Not long after, he made a much-anticipated, exceptional debut on Blue Note Records with "Spirit Fiction," a largely introspective album in which Coltrane led two distinct groups in one of the best releases of 2012.
And Thursday night he showed the expanding breadth of his work, as well as its technical finesse, packing a vast range of sounds and ideas into the first set of his engagement at the Showcase, which runs through Sunday.
Coltrane, the son of jazz icon John Coltrane and pianist Alice Coltrane, opened the evening boldly, with Ralph Alessi's deceptively titled "Who Wants Ice Cream" from "Spirit Fiction." If the whimsical name suggested music designed to go down sweet and easy, it was anything but. Like most of the music on "Spirit Fiction," the composition inspired remarkably complex figurations from Coltrane, his tenor saxophone lines as mercurial as they were rhythmically volatile.
Here were phrases that twisted and turned ceaselessly, one musical thought racing into the next. Yet despite the profusion of notes Coltrane produced, there was an expressive warmth to this music, the avalanche of phrase-making softened by the inherent delicacy of his tone and roundness of his articulation. With David Virelles conjuring a swirl of sound on piano and drummer Johnathan Blake and bassist Dezron Douglas relentlessly pushing the tempo, Coltrane's quartet instantly made an impression.
The searching, inquisitive nature of Coltrane's music was apparent in his "Word Order," in which his flurry of ideas unfolded over a medium swing beat. Douglas' sonorous low notes and Blake's pulsing rhythms gave this music its anchor, freeing Coltrane to take flight.
On purely technical terms, Coltrane turned in his most startling performance in Charlie Parker's "Segment," the whirring phrases, stop-start rhythms and sometimes running, sometimes soaring figures a tour de force of sopranino saxophone playing. But this performance also made musical sense, Coltrane giving tonal meaning and structural shape to his homage to Bird.
The insights kept coming. In an original and still emerging tune, the penetrating quality of Coltrane's timbre on soprano and the fervor of his long-held notes distinguished his playing. The yearning lyricism he brought to tenor in Charlie Haden's "For Turiya" attested to the depth of feeling Coltrane can achieve.
He closed the set with John Coltrane's "Mr. Day," and though it's true that he didn't have quite the tonal brawn he was reaching for in its climactic pages, he essentially made up for it with the intelligence of the way he developed and embellished themes.
In essence, Ravi Coltrane is in the midst of achieving a deeper maturity, which is quite satisfying to behold.
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.
Tickets: $25-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com