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.