Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

As a statement of faith, John Coltrane’s liner notes for A Love Supreme rank alongside The Confessions of St. Augustine, but as meaningful as his words are, they still can’t compare to the music waxed within. Decades after his tragically early death, Coltrane is still influencing musicians and listeners, both musically and spiritually. Indeed, how many musicians of any category have inspired a church dedicated to their music? The significance of Coltrane’s life and gifts are explored by his family, colleagues, and admirers in John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane, which opens this Friday in New York.

Before we proceed, let us invoke Coltrane’s own words: “ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE.” It is a prayer of great humility, yet it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

John Coltrane’s childhood was filled with struggle and tragedy but he became one of the few jazz musicians who “crossed over” to mainstream audiences. He first gained prominence as a member of Miles Davis’s first “Classic Quintet” (the trumpeter had two), playing on the mother of all jazz bestsellers, Kind of Blue. Coltrane notched his own legit hit with his modal exotic sounding rendition of “My Favorite Things,” but A Love Supreme serves as the centerpiece of the film—and rightly so. The suite of sacred music had a depth of feeling that remains astonishing, but it also served as a summation of all Coltrane’s musical experimentation up to that point, while even hinting at the avant-garde journey he was about to embark on.

Trane is the first Coltrane documentary produced with the cooperation of his family. As a result, we get a fuller perspective of Coltrane as a family man. The memories of Antonia Andrews, Coltrane’s stepdaughter from his first wife Naima, are especially touching. We also hear from real deal colleagues like Sonny Rollins (Coltrane’s media-made rival for tenor saxophone supremacy), former Dizzy Gillespie band-mate Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath, childhood friend Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter (tenor player in Davis’s second “Classic Quintet”), and McCoy Tyner, the last surviving member of Coltrane’s iconic quartet. We also hear from Coltrane’s son Ravi, who rather remarkably became a first-rate tenor and soprano player in his own right, braving inevitable comparisons to his father.

It is fine to also include commentary from experts like Wynton Marsalis, and biographers Ashley Kahn and Lewis Porter, who truly know their stuff, but the talking head sequences with Bill Clinton add nothing (and risk needlessly alienating viewers). However, when the film sticks to the music, it is always on solid ground. There are indeed a lot of Coltrane recordings incorporated into the film. Granted, selecting from his towering musical legacy surely must have been a daunting task (yet, we still have to ask how they could leave out the arrestingly beautiful “Dear Lord?”). Happily, everyone assembled readily acknowledges the contributions made by Coltrane’s signature quartet sidemen: Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Frankly, it is just as hard to imagine “My Favorite Things” without Tyner’s cascading solo as it would be without the leader himself.

For years, jazz fans have wanted to see Denzel Washington play Coltrane. He may have waited too long, but at least we can get a taste of what could have been through Washington’s narration of Trane’s notes and letters. Most importantly, Scheinfeld and his collaborators understand the deep connection between Coltrane’s faith in God and his music. In truth, performing music is in itself a spiritual act. The more attuned a musician is to that fact, the more resonant their music will be. Nobody was more keyed-in than John Coltrane. Those who are new to his music should acquire a thorough appreciation from Scheinfeld’s film, while established listeners will gain a further, deeper perspective. Highly recommended for jazz fans and audiences of faith, Chasing Trane opens this Friday (4/14) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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