Last week I went to the ICA Cinema to see John Scheinfeld’s “Chasing Trane”, a new documentary about the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. For me, the greatest of the sax players, the man who took the instrument to the edge, and back again, in much the same way as, later, Jimi Hendrix did with the electric guitar.
The film took us through Coltrane’s difficult childhood, his times in the navy, early struggles with heroin addiction, and two marriages. And of course the music. Inspired by Charlie Parker, he went on to play with Miles Davis twice. First time, he was eventually thrown out because of his addiction; second time he joined the band that recorded the sublime “Kind of Blue”. There’s some wonderful footage of the band playing “So What” and “Freedie Freeloader” from that album. I found that very moving. A band in total synch, masters of their craft, operating in a different dimension. True art.
Coltrane got too big to be in someone else’s band – even when they were making “Kind of Blue”, he was also recording the first of his great albums, “Giant Steps”. He formed a legendary quartet, with Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, and a succession of bassists, stabilising with Jimmy Garrison, who played on the ultimate Coltrane album, “A Love Supreme”, recorded in 1964. The film explores this period in some detail. It’s fascinating. How he disappeared into his upstairs room for days on end, and eventually emerged with all of the album down on paper. He envisaged the whole thing in his head before he began to play.
Coltrane didn’t only take his instrument to the edge, but he brought a spirituality to the sound which was unprecedented. When he played his soul cried out from that saxophone. He wrote a piece called “Alabama” after four girls were killed when the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed in 1963. It aches with the pain of that tragedy and the assault in black people in the US that it embodied. There is footage of him playing the tune – so resonant in the days after the Charlottesville demonstrations and terrorist attack, right now in 2017.
There is a stellar array of interviewees singing the praises of Coltrane. Family, good friends, fellow musicians, and musicians today who have been inspired by his music. Kamasi Washington and Common, Doors drummer John Densmore, Carlos Santana, Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins, amongst others. And there is ex President Bill Clinton, knowledgeable and passionate about the music of John Coltrane. Talking with respect and awe. Oh my God, the contrast with the soulless, self-obsessed hater in the White House now!
John Coltrane died from liver cancer at the age of 40 – so young. He was taking his music ever further beyond traditional jazz boundaries – sonically eastward in his last years. And his last ever tour was of Japan. There is a touching interview with a Japanese Coltrane obsessive who met him on that tour, as he visited Nagasaki, to pay homage to all those who died in the nuclear explosion. There’s a story of Coltrane being late getting off a train at Nagasaki, because he was lost in music, playing his flute, imagining the horror of Nagasaki through a melody. Absorbed, in another world.
“Chasing Trane” is the sort of film which will, I’m sure, appear on BBC 2 or 4, or Sky Arts at some time in the future. Look out for it. Even if you are not a big fan of jazz music, you could be moved by the life, the art, the soul of this great man. The man who took the saxophone into places it had never been before, leaving a legacy which inspires to this day.