Ravi Coltrane Quartet / Konrad Wiszniewski’s New Focus Quartet, Royal Lyceum, Review

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Ravi Coltrane Quartet: Ravi Coltrane (saxes), David Virelles (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass), Jonathan Blake (drums)

At a time when Edinburgh’s ever-fragile live music scene outside of festival season seems to be finally succumbing to terminal malaise and lack of support from powers-that-be, Jazz Scotland are to be heartily applauded for putting on a series of gigs around the country which make Edinburgh a prominent stopping point. A lively mix of new talent and weighty names make this short burst of early Spring activity particularly welcome, and a busy Lyceum theatre on a bitterly cold Sunday evening proves there’s audience appetite all year round.

As weighty names go in the jazz world, the Coltrane surname takes some beating. The 49-year old son of John and Alice, however, is very much his own man, having paid his dues as side musician on over thirty recordings and now intent on pursuing his own furrow while respectfully acknowledging his own legacy and shared heritage.

Before Ravi, the evening’s support comes from 2013 Scottish Album of the Year nominees Konrad Wiszniewski's New Focus Quartet. Wiszniewski plays pleasantly lyrical sax runs bobbing along top of his group’s light and bubbly jazz swing. But the air of the musical conservatoire feels slightly stifling while the Quartet’s sheet music and snappy but casual duds are off-putting. The short, sharp angles of their final number prove the Quartet can up the ante and the individual musicians are streamlined and slick in both playing and presentation. But tonight’s set veers toward smug and torpor-inducing. A bit more fire and experimentation might be needed for the New Focus Quartet to progress.

Ravi Coltrane and his band couldn’t be more of a contrast. Beginning with tentative rhythmic prods between drummer Jonathan Blake and bassist Dezron Douglas, it’s clear from the outset that the rapt audience are in the collective hands of a masterly group. Coltrane’s jazz drinks deep from the source of Blue Note and Impulse Records’ legendary 1950s-60s output, his kick-off point being just before all-out Free Jazz was declared and the players retreated to their lofts in search of the Howling Ecstatic.

To see and hear Ravi’s Quartet is to witness highly intelligent forms of energy being harnessed and morphed into sharply attuned geometric shapes which collide, coalesce and merge with each other before splintering outwards into numerous multiple identities. Pianist David Virelles initiates musical motifs like pendulums being set in motion, interrogating his keyboard with quizzical ruthlessness and studied intellectualism, executing light flurries and crashing clusters of notes. Douglas is the rhythmic root of the band, keeping everything grounded in dextrous free association, while Blake (whose sheer heft and presence behind his kit is hard to shake your eyes from) patters nimbly around the beat in a manner both nonchalantly laidback and razor sharp.

Coltrane is happy to cede the floor to these gifted players, but as he takes centre stage for his own solos it becomes very clear as to who’s the band leader. Switching between soprano and tenor sax, Ravi breathes out tumbling cascades, clear and crisp, forming a propulsive engine for driving his band further on and further in. The finale involving Coltrane squealing a fluid jetstream of staccato notes before giving way to a solo of breakneck thrashing drums from Blake is sheer bliss.

It’s almost a joy to discover jazz still being played like this. It’s even more of a joy to find it touring Scotland and playing in the occasionally moribund capital city. The biggest joy of all is seeing a near sold-out Lyceum audience on its feet for a deserved standing ovation at the end of Ravi’s 75-minute set. A fantastic band giving an outstanding performance and in the perfect venue. Please let the Lyceum be used more often for this kind of thing.