'Chasing Trane' relives musicians demons, triumphs and too-short life
John Coltrane helped shape the boundaries and the receptivity of his own musical times. But it's nonetheless remarkable that a jazz album as personal, searching and ecstatically out-there as John Coltrane's modal triumph "A Love Supreme" (1965) could sell a half-million copies by the end of the '60s.
How did Coltrane get there? The engaging if conventional documentary "Chasing Trane" answers the question with 90-plus minutes of interviews, the subjects ranging from former U.S. President Bill Clinton (POTUS-splaining subjects ranging from the Jim Crow South to Coltrane being the jazz Picasso) to Common to Cornel West; archival footage, including some of the most striking black-and-white jazz photos ever captured; and, providing the voice-over in Coltrane's own words, Denzel Washington.
Coltrane died at 40, of liver cancer complications. He was a quiet man, born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926. After high school he moved to Philadelphia to join his mother. By then he had started music lessons, and within a few short years he married his first wife, Juanita "Naima" Austin. In 1945 he heard Charlie Parker play for the first time. Stints with bands fronted by Dizzy Gillespie and, legendarily, the Miles Davis Quintet, brought different sounds out of Coltrane, as did his time alongside Thelonious Monk.
Heroin addiction was the monkey on his back, but Coltrane shook it, going cold turkey in 1957. This allowed him, as he said, to "play better, think better."
The Coltrane we come to know in "Chasing Trane" is a little light on idiosyncrasy; only rarely does writer-director John Scheinfeld suggest the Coltrane who kept everyone waiting while he worked out chord changes or invented compositions, leaving his wife and children for weeks at a time. This is a general-interest documentary, not one for the wonks or jazzbos. But the music, as we keep hearing from the cited experts, friends and admirers, covered so many different styles, "Chasing Trane" rides right past its own prescribed length of track.
Coltrane's work on "Kind of Blue" was radically different from the expressive heights he reached on his own in "Giant Steps," which he recorded in between cuts on the Miles Davis masterwork we've all heard too often at Starbucks. In his best-selling single "My Favorite Things," featuring Coltrane on alto sax, the musician's breadth of interests comes through in every bar, as Coltrane grasps at all sorts of Eastern influences seemingly at odds with the straight-up Richard Rodgers Broadway-ocity of the melody. After "A Love Supreme" Coltrane went further and further out, and fewer and fewer followed him. He was dead by 1967.
An LA Times colleague of mine once said he loved Coltrane, even though (unlike Davis or Parker) Coltrane never revealed much of a sense of humor in his playing. Perhaps Coltrane's private definition of a spiritual quest precluded it. Little matter. He was, and is, loved, supremely, by millions. "Chasing Trane" shares the love.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:39