Tenor saxophonist leads a multigenerational celebration of Coltrane
If you’re a part of a jazz group called We Four and you call yourself paying tribute to the demigod of tenor saxophone — John Coltrane — you’d better be a worthy member of that quartet, able to hold your own — especially if the group is your brainchild and you play the tenor sax (as Coltrane did).
Javon Jackson (tenor), Mulgrew Miller (piano), Nat Reeves (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) comprise We Four, and there’s not one among them who isn’t imminently qualified to be a cornerstone in a celebration of Coltrane, who remains one of jazz music’s most revered artists. We Four proves that JC’s music can still electrify audiences with its combination of potent swing and spiritual depth.
Speaking to the LAS from Portland, Ore., the sax man, along with We Four, comes to the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center this weekend.
LAS: So, We Four —This is the first time the group is playing in L.A., right?
JJ: This group just came together in March of this year. We did a concert in Miami, then we played another concert at U Mass Amherst …Then I reached out to Ruth (Price) to see if she was interested —
JC: And of course she was, and now you’re coming here! … So as the saxophonist in a group honoring John Coltrane, did you feel any additional pressure being the leader?
JJ: What we do in terms of — as a career, as you go on, you feel less pressure and you feel it’s an honor — an opportunity —to support an idea like celebrating Coltrane.
I first played with Art Blakey, and I always felt the pressure of being a Jazz Messenger ’cause so many people wanted to be a Jazz Messenger. And I learned from Blakey, just do the best you can. Don’t worry ’bout looking over your shoulder. The only pressure is what you’re putting on yourself. Just do your best, have good intentions … The rest of it will take care of itself.
You’re right: It is daunting to want to play the book of Coltrane, being a tenor saxophonist, but I look at it as he’s created incredible opportunities for me and for so many musicians and he left so much for us out here. So it’s a chance to just publicly applaud him. I look at it more like that.
JC: I hear you commenting on Blakey’s musical influence, but I read somewhere that you said that he also taught you to be a man?
JJ: I wanted to be with him from the time I was in junior high school, but I joined him at 21 so he taught me how to be a man. I mean, you’re traveling on the road with this individual, and you haven’t really been anywhere, and you’re getting a chance to watch him and getting the wisdom, the understanding about presenting yourself in front of an audience, about attire, about getting in and out of hotels, and traveling and learning how to deal with different types of individuals on a personal level … and then musically trying to grow at the same time. So it definitely was a situation that, without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So I owe Art Blakey everything … [He once said to me]: I know you went to Berklee [School of Music in Boston]. He said, but you’re at Harvard now! … There’s a certain amount of things we can learn academically, but when you get out there and you really do it every night in front of an audience and on-the-job training performing live, what we were doing is probably bass-ackwards — first going to college, then performing in front of people. It was an incredible opportunity for me. I’m all the better for it.
LAS: How were you able to bring together such a multigenerational group of four outstanding, brilliant musicians? What inspired you? I mean, I realize each of you has connections to Coltrane, obviously, but this particular foursome?
JJ: Well, you’re right — my love for Coltrane goes back to my house: My mother, father played Coltrane … In the last 5, 6, 7 years, I’ve been around Jimmy Cobb quite a bit, and obviously Jimmy played with Miles, he played with Coltrane, he played with Cannonball. He was in that world with those musicians, so when I decided to do something for Coltrane, Jimmy was my natural choice.
Mulgrew, I’ve known for a long time. Mulgrew was with Blakey a few years before me, but Mulgrew’s always been a kind of big brother — very receptive and available for younger musicians like myself — so I reached out to Mulgrew, and he was willing to be a part of this.
And then Nat Reeves, I’ve known for quite a bit of time. He worked for Jackie McLean for many years, then he worked for a great friend of mine, Kenny Garrett. I just felt Nat would be fine.
Everybody appreciates Coltrane. We’re all students of his music among others, so it is a multigenerational group because you have Jimmy [who’s] really from the ’50s and ’60s, and Mulgrew came to New York in the ’70s, and Nat as well, and then myself coming to New York in the late 80s. So it’s definitely several generations, and it’s a great group. We’ve done two concerts. We’ve had a great time, so it’s a lot of fun …
We Coltrane aficionados won’t want to miss out on the fun of “We Four — Celebrating Coltrane.” At the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, Sat., Oct. 29, at 8:30 p.m., a part of the Jazz Bakery’s movable feast. For more info, go to www.jazzbakery.org.