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Ravi Coltrane's Favorite 'Ice Cream' Flavor

Oct 1, 2013

Like a piece of gym equipment that always yields a great workout, most musicians have favorite tunes. For saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, "Who Wants Ice Cream" by trumpeter Ralph Alessi has proven especially fertile, drawing him back again and again since he recorded it as part of the album Spirit Fiction.

Coltrane is expected to play the tune during our webcast of his performance Live at the Village Vanguard Wednesday night. In an interview, he offered a musical primer to explain its lasting appeal — and his taste in frozen treats.

Lara Pellegrinelli: What is it about "I Want Ice Cream" that keeps you coming back for more?

Ravi Coltrane: You have to have some contrast. There can be a lot of high-energy moments in the set, and that song allows us to settle down and relax; to take a break from other things. It functions as a palate cleanser, if you will.

So technically it's more like a light sorbet than ice cream?

Exactly!

Then before we go any further, what's your favorite ice-cream flavor?

As a young boy, I liked coffee a lot. My tastes have changed — well, honestly, my tastes are really boring. I like Haagen-Dasz Vanilla Bean, though no endorsements here.

There's nothing wrong with the basics. But let's see if we can dig a little further into the tune. You said it provides a change of pace, but, to my ears, it's very much in keeping with the other compositions on the album. Rather than what I think of as typical high-energy jazz, they're agile while being complex.

Well, we play a bit differently on the gigs. That's the benefit of maintaining a repertoire: It gives the music an opportunity to change; for us to find different things to play on it. As improvisers, that's really our goal — not just to state the themes that people wrote. In the course of time, night after night you search for better ways to present the music.

The raw materials here seem to leave many possibilities.

Ralph Alessi is a fantastic writer. I've been playing his music for a very long time. There's something by Ralph on most of my records, whether his playing is featured or not. His writing style gives you a lot to play off of — beautiful complementary lines. Here, the bass line almost becomes a second melody, and this lovely counterpoint takes place.

I have to confess that I wasn't very focused on bass line because the melody on top is so tuneful.

It's simple, with a very accessible, song-like quality. We say that Ralph writes tunes that play themselves. There's so much there that you don't have to scramble. This one is very complete in a pure way. There's a lightness to it. But Ralph's compositional voice is also unique, in that things can sound familiar, yet they're also deceptive — like I thought the song was going to go in a certain direction or the bass line was going to hook up with the melody this way, and then something else happens.

For example, the rhythm of "Who Wants Ice Cream" seems straightforward — that is, until you try to count it.

It has a deceptive rhythmic cadence to it — you don't think it's in what we call common or 4/4 time [four beats per measure]. You think that there are odd meter bars all lined up in the form in different ways. But the whole form is in 4/4.

Is it? I was having a hard time last night trying to figure it out. I thought there had to be an extra beat or two here and there.

You feel the emphasis in a different place depending on the phrase. There are some places where the strong beats are on beat four, so you [mistakenly] think it's beat one of a five-beat measure. That's what makes the exploration kind of exciting — because it doesn't have the routine sort of two-beat- or four-beat-per-chord kind of harmonic movement. It's much more freeing and liberating not to feel locked down to a static harmonic progression. And he probably wrote it on a taxi ride from the airport in four minutes.

I hate people like that.

I love them and I hate them. I always think if someone else can do that, I can at least write three or four bars without an instrument.

But I get the feeling you're no slouch, either.

Well, Ralph has perfect pitch. He grew up with a mother who was an opera singer and a father who was an incredible trumpet player and teacher. His grandfather was also a very famous trumpet player who taught Donald Byrd. Byrd was actually studying with him while he was making records with my father in the late 1950s.

That's so cool. I didn't know. So you have some deep family history with each other.

Yeah, and I met Ralph during my first year at Cal Arts. Improv class. We've been very close friends and musical associates ever since.

Harmonically, where does the tune go? It's a little hard to pin down, a little slippery. It feels like you end up where you started, but all of those other phrases see to be headed somewhere else.

The first chord is C major and the last chord is A minor, the relative minor. I don't believe Ralph had any big intentions for where the song would travel. Again, it's almost like two songs: the lead line and then the counterpoint line in the bass. [Singing.] Be dah dah-dah...

For me, I hear these two melodies, and then the harmonies that the two melodies suggest become the harmonic material for the song. There's a nice freedom to be able to compose that way, without having those types of — I was going to say "limitations," but that's not really the word I was looking for — without having to impose that type of order on it with specific tonal centers and harmonic progressions. It's not a piece like that.

Is the chart written with changes on it?

Yeah, there are chord changes there, but the bass is not playing the roots of the chords all the time — it's playing melodic lines. So the composer has the right to say what chord would be suggested by that movement.

The arrangement on the album opens with a duet — a counterpoint between you and Ralph — and then the tune itself, with some solos and the tune repeated again on the way out. How will it be different when we hear it with the quartet on Wednesday?

For the recording, that's a quote-unquote "arrangement." On the bandstand, we just play it. I'll say, "Hey, why don't you start?" Then, the next night, I'll begin the song, maybe just start vamping on four bars as an introduction, letting it build, doing the unspoken thing, seeing what's going to happen next.

Well, we don't believe in leaving things unspoken on the blog. So thanks for answering all of these questions.

I couldn't imagine most people wanting to read through a guy going on about harmonic changes! But thanks; it's a thoughtful approach.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.