Ravi Coltrane and his quartet keep the beat at Bohemian Caverns

June 24, 2012

Drummers are known as the personality of a jazz band, and E.J. Strickland is no exception. The man behind the traps for tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who performed Friday night at Bohemian Caverns, established the quartet’s vibe almost immediately. However, he didn’t do it in terms of rhythmic feel, but in terms of taste.

It’s the former that’s usually the fodder for ensemble-defining drummers, as in the elaborate cross-rhythms of Tony Williams (from Miles Davis’s 1960s quintet) or earthquake-level tension of Elvin Jones (from the classic quartet of Coltrane’s legendary father, John). Strickland had no trouble generating complexity or tension in the adventurous post-bop music, but from the set’s opener, the standard “I’m Old Fashioned,” he did so with remarkable quiet. Neither his accents nor his flashy runs were overpowering, but tasteful — just loud enough to make the point. Even his riffy solos on “Coincide” and the closing “Nothing Like You” seemed reined in and crafted not to domineer.

The rest of the quartet followed suit. Bassist Dezron Douglas was undoubtedly the busiest member of the band, coating the beat like paint but blending into the ensemble before emerging in a smart, spacious solo on “May 1.”

David Virelles, the piano player, was more prominent. His solos (“Who Wants Ice Cream”) created dancing, occasionally dark shapes that were built on chords rather than single-note lines — and could run too long. Even here, though, Virelles tapped the same vein of quiet that Strickland did, avoiding big crescendos and allowing the bass and drums room to maneuver.

As for Coltrane, he came the closest to breaking the restraints. He held a squared-off stance, like a defensive tackle, and “Coincide” found him punching the accents in his long, aggressive improvisation. Although it had muted moments, it was essentially a fiery sermon.

Elsewhere, his playing was conversational, even rambling, but with a melodic underpinning and lots of space. “Nothing Like You” even found him working bebop phrases (to the delight of the audience, who shouted “Go ’head! Yeah!”). But there were no explosions, no wails, none of his father’s “sheets of sound.”

The younger Coltrane’s intensity comes through melody, not volume, and it was as if the band’s job was to see to that. Introducing Strickland, Coltrane joked, “We’ve been playing together for 12 years — we haven’t worked it out yet.”

West is a freelance writer.

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