Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane has been maturing noticeably during recent years, and he reiterated that fact dramatically Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase.
Playing with consistent seriousness of intent but also with plenty of fire, Coltrane led his quartet in a performance that had no throwaway moments, no nonchalant phrasings and scant moments of relaxation. Instead, in each piece Coltrane made succinct and often profound points, backed by three players clearly committed to this approach: drummer Johnathan Blake bassist Dezron Douglas and guitarist Adam Rogers.
At the heart of this music-making was Coltrane's increasingly distinctive sound on tenor saxophone, a somewhat airy tone that, in a way, has a contemporary counterpart in the alto playing of Miguel Zenon. Both produce a lighter, more translucent timbre than peers, and both stand out because of it (as well as for other reasons).
In Coltrane's case, the ethereal quality of his tone renders even his most intense, intricate passagework immensely attractive and unintimidating. So regardless of how explosively he may be playing or how remote his harmonic journeys may become, the sheer luster of his sound and nimbleness of his technique play gently on the ear.
Coltrane opened his first set at a high level of intensity, producing an avalanche of ideas in Ralph Alessi's "Cobbs Hill." Though Coltrane compressed a tremendous amount of melodic information into every bar, the lightness of his sound enhanced the lucidity of his music. Add to this Rogers' sleek, linear and free-ranging guitar work, and you had a compelling example of contemporary jazz counterpoint.
The band turned up the dial a few notches in "Word Order," Coltrane producing remarkably ornate lines and a crushed-velvet tone from start to finish. One theme rushed into the next, yet Coltrane brought an unmistakably narrative quality to his solo, the progress of ideas quite clear to follow.
The evening's tour de force arrived in the form of Charlie Parker's "Segment," a staple of Coltrane's repertoire of late. Playing sopranino saxophone, Coltrane combined remarkable velocity with ultra-crisp articulation and a palpable sense of spontaneity and freedom. In chorus after chorus, Coltrane unfurled a profusion of motifs without settling into a predictable rhythmic pattern or devolving into mechanical phrase-making. Moreover, his sound in the high registers of the sopranino proved consistently alluring: warm in timbre rather than shrill or piercing.
In a shrewdly conceived set, Coltrane dramatically shifted gears after "Segment" with the nearly romantic balladry of Paul Motian's "Endless." For all the tenderness of Coltrane's tenor work here, however, he offered just a hint of vibrato, as always preferring to understate his case. The spare beauty of Rogers' guitar lines underscored the less-is-more message.
To close his set, the saxophonist played an intellectually quirky account of "Giant Steps," a landmark composition by his father, the jazz giant John Coltrane. This was no routine run-through of the piece, Ravi Coltrane reworking its rhythmic syntax, extending its famous chord changes and otherwise taking "Giant Steps" in new directions.
For the rest of this engagement, pianist David Virelles will take the place of guitarist Rogers, altering the balance of an already intriguing band.
Jazz note: A "Charlie Parker Tribute" will start at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Jazz Showcase, as part of the Printers Row Lit Fest. Authors Stanley Crouch and Chuck Haddix and Showcase founder Joe Segal will discuss the bebop icon, in a roundtable moderated by this writer. Admission is free; printersrowlitfest.org.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $30-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com