The longest John Coltrane solo available on recording is said to be the title track of One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note made in the spring of 1965 in New York City. The saxophonist’s ecstatic outpourings extend to twenty-seven minutes and some. Yet The John Coltrane Reference, itself a monolith of a book of around 900 hundred pages, claims that the actual solo surpassed an hour, but was edited down to less than half the length. Even this pared-down version is an epic.
Then there is the hour-long rendition of “My Favorite Things” from Live in Japan recorded in 1966, the year before Coltrane’s death. As a bandleader, Coltrane was generous in deeding over huge tracts of musical territory to his sidemen (and sidewoman—the lone female music-maker in his stable, his second wife, Alice). The Japan “My Favorite Things” begins with a fifteen-minute introduction from bassist Jimmy Garrison and concludes with a twenty-minute discourse from Coltrane himself. On the club bandstand and concert stage of his last years, Coltrane was not the only one in his group to attempt to hold time at bay, or perhaps wormhole into another dimension.
The running time of the new documentary Chasing Trane by John Scheinfeld clocks in at 99 minutes, as if in the editing room the forces of reason and commerce triumphed over the temptation to cross into three-digit temporal territory. Once that threshold had been passed, it might just have been a matter of dropping the needle and rolling the tape and letting the tongues of flame race towards infinity. Film distributors don’t like infinity. The monumentality of late Coltrane resists easy packaging for screenings at Sundance and on the art house documentary circuit.
You do not really go to Chasing Trane—or any film of similar genre—for the musical performances, but rather to learn something about the artists and their creations. If you are unfamiliar with music, you can discover it more fully afterwards, or, if you are already a fan, you can return to your favorite things with enhanced appreciation or enlightening questions.
According to this standard, Scheinfeld’s movie meets its laudable goals to be accessible (even when Coltrane’s late music becomes increasingly unapproachable), enjoyable, and informative. Chasing Trane is a conventional survey of a great musician’s life and works. The gimmicky computer tricks with archival photographs and colorful graphics that are meant to convey Coltrane’s vast spirituality hardly make for cutting edge filmmaking.
The durable template wielded by Scheinfeld yields a satisfactory, if superficial, narrative: the progression between each stage of the expected tripartite scheme of early, middle, and late periods is made by Coltrane thanks to unrelenting labor driven by path-breaking innovation. The life informs the works: heroin addiction is overcome, and art and God take the man and musician to places none has gone before. The end of earthly life comes too early, but the works are immortal, and the creative spirit ascends to his creator, leaving behind him the broken body and achievements as timeless as those of Bach and Beethoven. Scheinfeld’s plot is unthreateningly engaging; it brings no surprises, the predictable flow of events broken by a few shouts and shrieks from Coltrane’s performances and lots of talk by aged colleagues, family members, enthusiasts, biographers, and guardians of the jazz ethos.
After seeing this film, one will have received a clear and coherent picture of the trajectory of Coltrane’s career and of the scope of his oeuvre. Part of the Great Migration north, he left North Carolina with his mother during World War II and came to Philadelphia. There he fell into a thriving neighborhood music scene with the likes of tenor saxophone great, Benny Golson, whose recollections spanning the period from his first meeting with Coltrane at Golson’s doorway in 1943 to his friend’s death nearly twenty-five years later are the most vivid, moving, articulate, and memorable in the film.
While in the navy and stationed in Honolulu after the war, Coltrane recorded Koko by Charlie Parker (then—and still—the idol of all saxophonists) on alto. Coltrane’s early attempts at bebop scratch at the soundtrack for a few fleeting seconds. These juvenile efforts show no sign of the visionary to come, and are held to be unimpressive by one of Scheinfeld’s many talking heads—the obligatory and tiresome, Wynton Marsalis. His platitudes about the cultural-spiritual-political importance of jazz and Coltrane’s contribution to the tradition have a false sheen of profundity, but quickly become trite and tedious, like a jazz lick learned and then beaten into the ground. Marsalis tells us at one point that Coltrane provides “a new way to hear the universe through music.” Which raises the question, every time we see and hear Marsalis, why we’re not listening to that music rather than to the jazz chief justice’s supposedly learned opinions. Kindred truisms carry us from the tentative early steps of Hawaii to the outer reaches of musical consciousness with A Love Supreme in 1965. A little more than two decades separates them.
Overstaying your welcome at the microphone was a problem that Coltrane recognized in his own playing before he tossed aside such concerns, abetted by his faith. The issue is alluded to in the documentary first in the retailing of the exchange between Miles Davis and Coltrane that took place during the latters’ time in the trumpeter’s celebrated quintet in two separate stints in the later 1950s. The tenor player admitted to Davis that he didn’t know when to stop playing. Davis retorted sharply, “How about taking the fucking horn out of your mouth?” (The colorful adjective is omitted from the film.) Scheinfeld then shows us footage of the quintet performing the classic modal exploration “So What” in 1959. It is the only complete Coltrane solo we see and hear in the movie.
After Miles pulls back from the microphone at the conclusion of his cool and airy improvisation, Coltrane steps up and starts off by caressing a sparse and mournful melody untethered from the rhythm section’s beat. But before the band has even made it to the bridge, Coltrane is already spouting fevered arpeggios, as if preaching (or perhaps speaking in tongues) against the hip posturing projected by the tune’s static harmonies and, indeed, its arch title. The solo lasts 90 seconds.
After this single unimpeded stretch of music, which, in comparison to the pervasive snippets seems almost an eternity, we are soon back to the documentary talking heads.
Scheinfeld conveys a good sense of the wide cultural reach of Coltrane’s music by including interviews with the rapper, Common; the incisive first-hand accounts of The Doors’ drummer John Densmore, who heard Coltrane in Los Angeles in the 1960s, also enraptured by the quartet’s colossal drummer, Elvin Jones; the unimpeachable truths imparted by Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s partner in Tenor Madness (which we don’t hear in the film); and the rather more mystical ruminations of Carlos Santana. Another Philadelphia friend and colleague, tenor master Jimmy Heath (now in his nineties), speaks with an authenticity that matches Golson’s. Heath’s singing of the melody to “Alabama,” Coltrane’s dirge on the death of the girls in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, and his thoughts on the dead musician’s hands laid out in his casket in 1967 make for some of the most powerful moments in the film. But the continual return of Marsalis, and the cloying Cornel West (designated a “philosopher”), distract and deaden. We hear from McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s great pianist, for but a few short seconds.
Worst of all, however, is Bill Clinton, who, perched in front of a book-lined backdrop, tells us about the meaning of Coltrane’s music. Clinton was too big to be cut. His reflections—which seem the apogee of eloquence and culture when we recall the diction of the current U. S. president—on the spiritual impact of Coltrane’s playing and compositions cut against the culminating message of the film imparted during Coltrane’s visit to Nagasaki and the atomic bombing memorial in 1966. For Coltrane music became a means of striving for world peace.
In 1992 the Coltrane devotee Clinton would don sunglasses and play his own tenor on the Arsenio Hall Show, then hasten back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of mentally impaired Ricky Ray Rector. That vicious act helped vault the governor into the Oval Office from whence he embargoed and bombed. Twenty-five years on, in this fiftieth anniversary year of Coltrane’s untimely death, the discredited Clinton lectures us on the moral force of his hero’s music. Thus Scheinfeld unwittingly imparts an unsettling moral: music intended for good, can be balm for evil.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com)