“People assume that because your last name is Coltrane or because you’re a jazz guy, that you’re trying to live in the past to a certain extent or keeping the tradition alive and all of that noise,” Coltrane explains in his soft-spoken, but intensely engaging tone as we discuss the state of jazz music today. Instead, as he explains, the music is about looking forward with a fully capable grasp of the past. The jazz tradition is about moving forward and constantly looking ahead. On the heels of releasing his Blue Note Records debut as a bandleader, Coltrane goes in-depth on his views about the music, the business, and his experiences within it.

Photograph by Deborah Feingold

Congrats on the release of Spirit Fiction. How did the process go for you bringing together the two different groups that you recorded with?

It felt very, kind of, natural to have these two bands featured on this one record. I’ve been working with the quartet (Perdomo, Gress, and Strickland) for almost ten years. That’s more of a partnership than me leading the band. It’s a real kind of collective. The quintet is made up of all of these players that I’ve been hanging with and working with for like two decades. Ralph Alessi I’ve been playing with since ’86. I played lots of gigs with Geri in the early ‘90s. James is on three of my other records. As a quintet, the group is on my second record, From the Round Box. We never played together after that recording, so revisiting the quintet was something that I had wanted to do. The timing worked out so that both of those sessions ended up on the same record.

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You’ve worked with Blue Note Records in other capacities, but this is your debut as a bandleader with them. How did that come about?

It’s Blue Note Records, you know. It’s the greatest living jazz label and historically one of the greatest record labels of all time. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to agree to be on their label. I actually started speaking with them a while ago, maybe five years ago or more, after I released a record called In Flux. I got a few calls from some of the folks there and we started the relationship then. I was still under contract with Savoy and was having some difficulties getting out of that contract. So it took a little time, but fortunately it all came together.

Do you see the record business as it is currently priced as a sustainable model?

Well, that’s a very challenging question. I remember the days of going to Tower Records just to buy LPs. Forget about when Tower just existed, I remember Tower before the CDs even came in. We were always aware of how much the records cost; I think they were around $9.99 or something. They weren’t that super expensive. Then when the CD came out, they were like 18 bucks. People were really protesting it and got mad. But obviously the CD took over and people got used to paying more money. Now the CD is basically done as a format and we don’t have record stores anymore. The record companies don’t have the same amount of leverage. So now an album costs $9.99 on iTunes. The price of the CD shouldn’t have inflated so much when the format changed.

But, it’s hard to say man. You’ve got generations now of people who have never set foot in a record store. You’ve got music fans who are comfortable not paying for music. So it’s kind of hard to see where it will all lead. To release records in 2012, it’s like, what does it mean? Are we just doing this because we love music? You know, we do love music and we have to document our music in that regard. But it’s hard to see where it’s going to go.

And you have experience on the other side of the business with your label, RKM Music. Did that give you a new perspective on making music?

Well, it enhanced the perspectives I already had. I spent a great deal of my childhood watching my mom make records. Then being involved in the record business on my own – I got here in ’91 and did a ton of record dates as a sideman – I watch a lot of people that I respected get good deals and then be dropped from those deals a record or two later. I always felt, you know, for all of the great joys of documenting music and getting your work out there, there are always pitfalls in dealing with what A&R wants or record executives or whatever. It can be kind of treacherous and I did see a lot of situations where musicians were…I won’t say their career was destroyed, but things just went badly for some people and it changed their whole attitude about the creative process and making music when the rug was pulled out from underneath them.

I felt a lot of that throughout the ‘90s and I didn’t want to be a part of that. So when I did start putting out records with RKM Music, I wanted the opposite to be our goal. I wanted it to be nothing but the artists’ vision.

Going back to your mom, aside from meaning so much to other people, what did she mean to you?

My mom is like anyone’s mom. You love your mom, you respect her, you fear her. You know, you try to get their appreciation, their admiration. It was all of the things you could roll up into that relationship of a parent and child, plus the fact that she was this very incredibly gifted, kind, and generous person. She’s very influential in that regard. Her awareness and sensitivity towards others and her desire to put something positive into the world had a huge effect on me.

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Do you have a favorite non-musical experience with her that you could share?

We moved to California around ’71 from Huntington, Long Island. We moved to the San Fernando Valley. During the ‘70s it was kind of rural in a lot of stretches. A lot of unpaved roads and things like that. They called it horse country because basically everybody had a horse or a mule or something tied up in the backyard. We moved into a house that had stables and at some point we ended up keeping horses and we used to ride. One of my favorite memories is that we’d leave our house with our horses and we’d have to walk them to like a corral somewhere in the neighborhood where people would bring their horses. But, we’d often have these races on horseback in the alleyways behind Ventura Boulevard going back home. Yeah, that’s something you wouldn’t imagine, Alice Coltrane and her ten year-old son having races on horseback in the alleyways behind Ventura Boulevard.

What does a day in your life consist of nowadays? Are you crazy busy or do you leave some downtime?

Well, as much as I would appreciate some downtime, I like to work. I like to be working on something, whether I’m out on a gig – and that’s a different type of work, I love performing – but I also love getting into my studio, closing the doors, turning off my phone if I have to, and really focusing on whatever the task is at hand. It’s a pleasure for me to immersed in music. That’s another reason I wanted to start the record label. RKM has been around for ten or twelve years. For me it’s like, if I can stay connected to music, even if I’m not performing per se, if I’m involved on this other end, it’s just another outlet for me to be connected to music. I do like to keep busy.

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Do you have certain reference recordings that you bring into the studio to compare mixes or recordings to?

Back in the day we’d mix things that way. You’d bring in a few recordings where you felt the bass level is perfect or something. There are a lot of variables when you’re mixing in a room though. There’s the room, how the speakers are producing, and everything. It’s very challenging and it’s easy to screw those things up. We kind of use our ears and we bring additional ears in that we trust to get a consensus on where things are going. I find that those are the best references these days, just your own ears and people that you trust.

Who do you trust to give a listen?

It’s most of the people involved! [laughs] They’re usually on that level of trust. That’s why Joe Lovano produced this last record. That’s why I have Ralph Alessi on most of the records I do. I’ve known these guys for years. I know their sensibilities and they know mine. We’re all kind of going for similar things. We can respond in ways that each of us understands in the moment. Steve Coleman produced my first record and it was the same kind of idea. It’s good to have like-minded people around when you need that sounding board.

Having worked with so many incredible artists and musicians, does anyone stand out as a someone who should be included in the jazz standards repertoire, but isn’t?

That can be very subjective. I think art needs to be subjective. I was never into people saying, “You have to listen to this person.” It’s very subjective why these people are important to us. We can obviously group enough of them into one arena to say yes, these people are creators, and heroes, and geniuses. You know, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk. No one is going to argue that these compositions must be heard, must be played, and must be learned because they are beautiful and have laid so much foundation.

Today there are beautiful writers and great creative thinkers. But again, it’s important for people to embrace the things that move them. That’s more important than someone saying something is of value and has to be learned. There’s nothing wrong with that, but again I try to not tread in those areas. I think it’s important to embrace the things that they dig regardless of anyone else digging it or not.

Who influenced your style?

All of the usual suspects. I’m a huge fun of, you know, the guys. The real guys that played this music. I don’t even like to list them. Yet, as much as I’m a fan of jazz music, I still embrace a lot of the music that I listened to growing up. R&B music, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, as well as symphonic music. I’m really into listening to Dvorak and Stravinsky. I got into Ravel later and Bartók. I was really into film scores, so John Williams and Gary Goldman. I’m influenced by creative music. I don’t hear music in terms of styles or genres. Growing up in a house with my mother, who at one moment could be playing these wild string orchestrations or preparing for her recordings and listening to African drummers and James Brown or Motown, it never felt like a bunch of different things. It just felt like music. It’s not so much about the style or genre or even person, it’s about what is being expressed.

With your record, was there a certain perspective you were trying to express?

I always want to put something in the music that is honest and real, not trying to impress people because it’s slick or hip or flashy. That type of thing is not a big motivator for me. I can appreciate it on some levels; I’m a fan of crazy shit as well. I’ve always just tried to be as honest as I could in the moment. You don’t always know what the end result will be. You can only formulate it so much. You have to give in to the moment at some point. Our goals are always the same though. We want to express ourselves, but we want to do it in a way that a listener can accept and appreciate.

I didn’t have any specific plan with Spirit Fiction beyond documenting the music I wanted to document as far as playing with these musicians.

Is there anything that would surprise people about how you approach music?

You know, maybe people assume that because your last name is Coltrane or because you’re a jazz guy, that you’re trying to live in the past to a certain extent or keeping the tradition alive and all of that noise. For me the tradition is not going anywhere. That’s what traditions are about, right? They’re kind of bedrock. And the jazz tradition is a forward thinking tradition, or is supposed to be at least. So for any jazz musician today to only think backwards seems a little counterintuitive. So I’m thinking about the future, but not in some lofty way like I have to change it or make history or anything. I’m trying to perceive my work in a way that isn’t so unlike how the masters perceived it. The Miles Davis’ and John Coltranes and Thelonious Monks. I think they had a firm grasp on tradition, but they were really more concerned with moving in their own direction. Taking everything from the past and channeling it forward. You know, I know that there are people out here who want to create from that perspective. I think that often jazz does get pegged in this place where you’re constantly trying to live up to the past and your playing is always going to be compared to people in the past. Your art and your work and your ideas are always going to be compared to people in the past. It is an important measuring stick to use, but it can sometimes get in the way. Like “I can’t do that, it won’t sound like jazz.” Even as a subconscious thought, it can be kind of destructive to moving forward.

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This might be an unanswerable question, but what does it mean to look forward in this music? How do you advance jazz?

Perfect [laughs]! No, but everybody’s journey should be unique. People should rely as much on their intuition as their intuition will allow because that will lead to something new. If we’re only held to this standard of like can you master the past, or can you do what they did, can you represent the past in a way that makes sense for us, you’ll have a lot of great musicians who will never take a step towards finding themselves. Anyone can learn how to play like Joe Henderson, and that’s a challenge. Yet, at the same time his music exists for anyone to master tomorrow or the next day. What’s going to prevent the next generation of saxophone players from not feeling content in only doing that? Obviously we have to learn this music and study the past masters, but what’s going to push us to do more that just master what they did?

Being inspired or even being encouraged to let go and to embrace the unknown is important. Sink or swim, succeed or fail, those are secondary. The primary idea is to have courage and to trust your instincts. Take everything that is meaningful and important to you from the past and literally just go forward without fear. That’s hard to do man. It doesn’t always work. You can be more comfortable saying, well if I do it this way I know it will work fine, people will like it, I’ll get a good review, somebody will give me a gig, girls will start screaming in the audience, whatever. There are enough guarantees for people to settle into that type of creative environment. I don’t know how creative it is really. What is really the goal of an improviser? What are we supposed to do as improvisers, just play stuff that we know and just rearrange it? No. We try to lead and go off in these directions where we don’t even know what the end result is going to be. I think that may lie closer to the definition of an improviser. It’s not going to be easier and most times, yeah, you will fail. But the times that you touch on something and something happens and you realize you can rely more on intuition, it empowers you. It also makes it easier for the next time.

Do you remember a specific moment you felt this way and who it was with? 

Yeah it’s the moment. When that moment happens and you recognize it, you say, “Man, this came together for this one reason.” It has nothing to do with anything I studied or learned or any solos that I transcribed. It came together for a particular reason, some little thing. Be aware of the moment and use it as a beacon of light to get you to the next moment. Your mind might be somewhere else and you hear something that clicks. Then you say, “Wow, let me keep thinking that way. Let me keep reacting that way. Let me keep searching for those moments.” These are beat to beat, pulse to pulse, note to note kind of moments.

Grab a copy of Spirit Fiction now!

Interview by Eric Sandler