‘Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary’

Trane keeps a-rolling

Though much has been written about John Coltrane and there’s plenty of his music out there, we never knew a lot about the man and still haven't figured out just what he was playing, how he got there, and where he was going with it. Documentarian John Scheinfeld’s award-winning Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary cannot answer those impossible questions definitively, but addresses them in a moving, touching, and sometimes profound manner. 

The legend and his instrument. (Photo by Francis Wolff.)

More to the man

Some 50 years after his death, tenor saxophonist/composer Coltrane remains one of the most influential artists in jazz. It is no exaggeration to say Coltrane’s sphere of influence was and is so pervasive that he has touched virtually every genre of music — and a good number of instrumentalists and vocalists within those genres. 

Like pianist/composer Bill Evans, whose impact was almost as large as Coltrane’s, John Coltrane defined what jazz would become rhythmically, harmonically, tonally, and spiritually. His influence was so strong that giants from every school — from swinger Don Byas to bopper Art Pepper — were moved to modify their styles to accommodate what Coltrane was laying down.

Ultimately, through this film, even Coltrane aficionados will learn a good deal about this quiet, thoughtful, gentle, family man and introspective genius and the music he made. Those unfamiliar with his legacy will be moved to want to learn about it. I was.

An enduring spirit

Scheinfeld—known for his docs on John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, among others—takes a relatively linear approach to telling this story, generally avoiding the flashbacks and time-juggling techniques so fashionable in recent film biographies. Particularly riveting are interviews with family, jazz scholars, and Coltrane’s musical cohorts, including saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, who knew him during his 1943 to 1958 Philadelphia residency; saxophone giant Sonny Rollins; and original Coltrane Quartet pianist McCoy Tyner.

Also effective is the tastefully and sparingly utilized narration using John Coltrane’s own words, voiced by Denzel Washington. However, the inclusion of on-camera comments, however passionate, from former president Bill Clinton (who fortunately left his tenor saxophone home on filming day) and Doors drummer John Densmore are questionable, especially when several musicians who worked with Coltrane — including drummers Rashied Ali and Roy Haynes and saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders — are still alive.

There are plenty of talking heads here, but Scheinfeld does not let the music take a back seat. His challenge with the music was the scarcity of high-quality Coltrane film footage; in addition, many of Trane’s performances were, to put it mildly, lengthy.  His intelligent solution incorporates relatively full versions of just Coltrane’s solos. Hearing these solos in their entirety gives the audience a sense of who he was musically and why he is relevant. Further, the film does not fudge on Coltrane’s controversial later years, where he alienated much of his audience with a full-blown embrace of free jazz.

There has been much talk through the years, and plenty within Chasing Trane, about Coltrane’s spirituality, his mysticism, and what some believe is his “still-present” spirit. In that regard, I can only report the following: while walking home from the Ritz Theater, where the movie is playing, I happened, utterly by chance, upon an older street performer blowing Coltrane licks on an alto saxophone. Then, on another street corner several blocks away, two young men attempted to play Trane’s “Giant Steps” on their saxophones. Evidently, John Coltrane — who was all about the music — lives on. 

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