I’m going to make no apology for returning to the subject of John Coltrane so soon after writing a short piece in recognition of the 50th anniversary of his death. A few days after posting that piece I was invited to a screening at Ronnie Scott’s Club of a new documentary called Chasing Trane. The 99-minute film gets its first UK cinema release in August, and I strongly recommend that you catch it.
John Scheinfeld, its writer and director, adopts an approach that is likely to please even the most demanding fan. Chasing Trane is neither a thorough biographical investigation nor a poetic reflection in the manner of Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan but a serious-minded inquiry into the meaning and evolution of Coltrane’s art, with reference to his life.
Some of the witnesses provide striking testimony. “He had a deep feeling for higher worlds than this world,” Sonny Rollins says. Kamasi Washington on his sound: “His tone was like looking at the sun — the brightest light you could hear.” Carlos Santana tries to evoke how it felt to hear that sound for the first time: “It was… a vortex of possibilities.” Wynton Marsalis on the impact of the great quartet: “People who heard them, their lives were transformed.” As we watch film of that group, we can only agree with McCoy Tyner, its pianist, who gives a brief but indelible summary of what made it special: “We were committed.”
The critic Ben Ratliff makes an important point about innovation when he talks about Coltrane’s relentless and often controversial stylistic development: “He’s pushing forward… such that he may not even know what he’s pushing forward to.” We’re watching a piece of film from the final Newport Jazz Festival appearance in 1966, and listening to the emotionally unfettered music of the last quintet, when Oran Coltrane, one of his sons (and one of the four children and stepchildren heard from in the film), adds: “Would you want him to tiptoe to where he’s trying to get to?”
Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s contemporaries and peers, talk movingly about their long friendships with him. We hear from John Densmore of the Doors and Bill Clinton, formerly of the White House. Coltrane’s own statements, from interviews and sleeve notes, are spoken by Denzel Washington. But some of the most powerful words come from the rapper Common, summing up the complex emotions expressed with such harrowing but elevating directness in “Alabama”, Coltrane’s threnody for the schoolgirls murdered in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963: “The pain that we went through but the hope that we have.”
The “Alabama” sequence is a good example of how, while making effective use of interviews, Scheinfeld remembers to allow the music to speak for itself from time to time. At this stage, I don’t suppose that all those sceptical of the stylistic evolution of his last two or three years (basically from Ascension on) will be converted, but they will not be left unmoved by the sound of the hymn-like “Peace on Earth” over the film’s penultimate sequence, dealing with the group’s visit to Japan in 1966, when 16 concerts in 17 days included a visit to Nagasaki, where Coltrane meditated at the shrine marking the site of the nuclear explosion 21 years earlier.
Japanese listeners seemed to have little problem with that late style, and the saxophonist’s many obsessive fans are represented in the film by Yasuhiro Fujioka, the self-described “world’s number one collector of John Coltrane memorabilia”. Fujioka fell in love with the music as a schoolboy and his hoard became so vast that he had to build a house in Osaka to contain it.
Coltrane’s life was such a big one, and its impact so extensive, that no 99-minute portrait could hope to encompass all its dimensions, never mind subject them to deep analysis. But while skating over the surface of several important aspects of the story, Scheinfeld makes so many good decisions that whatever your level of commitment to this music might be, his film is essential viewing.
* Chasing Trane is to be screened at the ICA Cinema in London from August 11-17.
Looking forward to seeing this one!
Completely agree, Richard. An exceedingly spiritual and moving documentary film. Jazz FM’s Chris Philips wrote: “Watched ‘Chasing Trane’ today. Lovely documentary about the life of John Coltrane confirming what I already believe – that he was a prophet for our times. I felt quite emotional in all honesty. Trane’s music is different because his dedication to the instrument, deep intellect and faith in the human spirit helped him access sounds and compose chords that are the sound of Humanity’s collective good heart. Love above all religion. Lasting vibrations that connect deeply. Truly a great human being through ups and downs. I urge you to see it if possible. Some lovely talking heads in it too, especially Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Common, John Densmore and beautifully articulated descriptions by Bill Clinton.” Kind of says it all…
No apologies required . It’s , as it were , an aesthetic point of honour to have no qualms about Coltrane’s late ” style ” .( Japanese listeners hadn’t about Metal Machine Music either . It was just ” the new Lou Reed album”).
does it show John playing on his wife’s harp ?
Sounds great. It *might* get one night at Belfast’s one art-house cinema.
No, looks like I missed that one night in Belfast. It was July 7. Perhaps there will be a DVD.
I’m always somewhat sceptical about the deification or sanctification of musicians (or indeed anyone) even ones so massively influential and rewarding as John Coltrane, who has formed a kind of indispensable soundtrack to my life ever since I was 14. I always liked his “Miles can be a prick” remark as a sign he was “human” and could get as exasperated/pissed off as the rest of us.
Nonetheless, this film profile sounds excellent and many thanks for the review. Will definitely attempt to see it.
Yes, the film is well worth seeing, as I suppose anything that honestly tries to come to grips with John Coltrane will be. Several times when I’ve found myself in a time of trouble, I just read a John Coltrane biography and the power of his life and artistic search just lifts me up. Grateful that the film-makers got to talk to so many witnesses before they are gone.
Anyone know if it`s likely to creep out into “The Provinces”??
Trusting your recommendation Richard, I took 4 friends earlier this evening to see ‘Chasing Trane’ at the ICA. I was moved many times to tears, from the opening sequence rich colours (so unexpected that computer graphics could be combined with Trane’s saxophone to evoke convincingly an interstellar space journey) to the brilliant judged ending ( which I wont give away) and it’s choice of archival footage.
The choice of archival footage, photos and clips, observations and interviews are brilliantly assembled to give a real feel of what the man was like both as a musician and as a husband and father.
I have read both Ben Ratliff’s and Lewis Porter’s biographies of John Coltrane – but neither does him justice in the way that this film does. I felt tonight like I met him properly for the first time.
Huge respect and thanks to director John Scheinfeld and his team.
Sonny Rollins surely deserves the last word – summing up Coltrane’s talent with a comment of genius laconic jazz observation ( paraphrasing from memory) to the effect that “to play music at that level, you have to be blessed by the supreme whatever … ” !
Many thanks for drawing attention to the ICA screenings, because I had no idea that they were scheduled. I mentioned them to a Coltrane enthusiast who is London-based (which I am not these days) and he didn’t know about them either. The film is definitely worth seeing, and the good news is that it is now on at the ICA for another week (until August 24).