Miles Davis. Charlie Parker. Duke Ellington...and John Coltrane. There are surely others that would land on the "all-time great jazz musicians" list, but none would exclude the legendary saxophonist known to many simply as "Trane." John Coltrane played with some of the greatest artists and composers of his time, before becoming one himself, and he is the subject of the new documentary, "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary," that hits theaters Friday, May 19.
Largely, the documentary looks to remember Trane and honor his legacy. It acts as a great introduction to those (like myself) that may not be familiar with John Coltrane, the man or his music. Coltrane rose to the top of the jazz world in the 50s and 60s, playing alongside Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk and he carved out a reputation as the best saxophonist in the business. He rose to stardom of his own accord, but like many who achieve fame, he battled several demons along the way. As the doc covers, he drank un-Goldy amounts, and died way too young - at age 40 - leaving behind a body of work that would inspire and influence generations to come.
It follows Trane's early days, his solo career and it even delves into his ponderous "later work" which was considered at best "avant garde" jazz, or at worst, confusing. His 1965 album "A Love Supreme" is listed as the #2 Jazz Album of All-Time by The Jazz Resource (ranking only behind Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue"), and is almost universally thought of as one of the best albums ever recorded.
The music aside though, there's nothing particularly special about the way that this documentary was made...it's a pretty standard talking-head doc. The director is veteran music-documentarian, John Scheinfeld, and he makes a great decision to only show Coltrane as viewed through the lenses of others...we don't hear Coltrane speak at all. We do hear a great deal of his music...his true voice...which is used as a soundtrack to his life story, and which speaks volumes as to what was in the man's soul.
All of the narration - by Denzel Washington - was taken from actual interviews or writings from Coltrane, but the way its used has the odd affect of sounding personal and impersonal all at once. On one hand, we're hearing directly from Trane himself, but read and spoken in another man's voice, we sometimes forget that we're hearing direct quotes. Again, Trane's real voice comes through in his music.
In addition to hearing from Coltrane's contemporaries, like fellow saxophone legend, Sonny Rollins, we hear much from others that either worked with or knew Trane personally, or those that are simply giant fans of his work. Former President Bill Clinton shows up a shocking amount of times, and heaps praise on Coltrane over and over again. We hear from others like Common, Wynton Marsalis and The Doors' drummer, John Densmore, and we are even graced with the presence of Dr. Cornell West, whose succinct way of speaking is always a welcome presence and really helps put Coltrane's influence in context.
"Chasing Trane" is not a ground-breaking documentary, nor does it really dive too much deeper than surface level. Newbies will walk away with a new understanding of who this artist was and why he's considered important, and fans will be left feeling proud that this hero of jazz was remembered at all. If nothing else, it will make people run to their computers to Google "John Coltrane" or to download "A Love Supreme" from iTunes. Either way, you'll be better off for seeing it.
Genre: Documentary, Music
Run Time: 1 hour and 39 minutes, Not Rated
Written & Directed by John Scheinfeld ("I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song," "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," "We Believe")
This movie opens on Friday May 19, 2017 (check for showtimes).