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Published: 2017/11/28
by Larson Sutton

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

Even with the flowing testimonials of admiration delivered by mega-watt figures ranging from former President Bill Clinton and Dr. Cornel West to musicians such as Carlos Santana, Wynton Marsalis, and Sonny Rollins, the keynote of this excellent documentary comes from Fuji, a Japanese collector of all things John Coltrane. It is late in Chasing Trane when Fuji appears to tell of his nearly life-long obsession with the tenor saxophonist, even converting much of his house to accommodate his accumulation of albums, posters, and the like. His singular goal- chasing Trane- creates an epiphany of context and commonality between this everyman’s devotion and the preceding commentary of the film’s many stars: They are all fans; awed, gushing, and forever.

Regardless of their ages, their backgrounds, or their own successes, they are all humbled at the feet of Coltrane without any hesitation in talking about it. Providing an unassuming voice of the man, himself, is Denzel Washington, reading first-person quotes excerpted from interviews and articles, portraying the jazz giant as equally modest and socially consciously in pursuit of artistic expression. To that, family members, friends, and former bandmates add often emotionally vulnerable substantiation.

While fully biographical, director John Scheinfeld spends very little time if any detailing recording processes or diving deeply into the catalog. It’s mostly the high points. There is scant footage of Coltrane in the studio (though, quite likely that little exists), only incidental discussion of sessions, and no mention of Coltrane’s perhaps most famous stylistic contribution- the “sheets of sound.” The soundtrack does mark the evolution of periods- his years with Miles Davis, early solo, classic quartet, and atonal- but almost always are acknowledged by their impact. The focus is on the effect of John Coltrane; less so the cause. More the man, not the mechanics.

One area of Coltrane’s motivation that receives the majority of emphasis is the spiritual. Scheinfeld does a nice job of constructing an effective and subtle bridge from Trane’s profound relationship with God to a secular, cosmic metaphor of music as a universe. The anecdotal accounts of The Doors’ drummer John Densmore, who witnessed Coltrane live in Los Angeles, seem tacitly to connect the saxophonist’s boundary obliterating to approaching ‘60s psychedelia, as well. By the time Fuji arrives, confirming a global reach that dovetails with the recollection of Coltrane’s 1966 tour of Japan- the last before his death in 1967- both the contemporaneous and subsequently ongoing impact of John Coltrane and his music are indisputable, and the chasing of Trane continues.

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