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November 30, 2017 / robinswood

Chasing Trane

chasing trane image

I missed seeing Chasing Trane: the John Coltrane Documentary when it played in the theatre during the 2017 Winnipeg Jazz Festival, so I was pleasantly surprised when I recently discovered it was available on Netflix.  While there is really nothing new here for the serious fan, it is great fun to watch a wide array of people – unabashed fans all – remember, pay tribute, and sometimes positively gush over the work of a true jazz great. That list of fans includes jazz legends such as Benny Golson, Reggie Workman, and Jimmy Heath, as well as Carlos Santana and John Densmore from the rock world. Mix in Cornell West, McCoy Tyner, members of the Coltrane family, Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter,  Bill Clinton (!), and a host of others, and you have a wide-ranging appreciation of the man and his music.

I was delighted to see how the film worked in the art of Rudy Gutierrez, the illustrator of  Gary Golio’s book for children, Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey. Gary and Rudy actually shared a book release event with me at St Peter’s Church in Manhattan  back in 2012, and I have some real affection for their book.

I do have two somewhat more critical comments to offer. Firstly, this film is so much an appreciation that it avoids any suggestion that Coltrane’s work was ever anything less than uniformly brilliant. While I do have a deep respect for much of the music he created post-Ascension, not all of it “worked” – and here I would point to the ill-conceived Om record released in 1968 – and certainly not all of it was universally well received by the critics or even by his committed fans.

Secondly, as is true of so much of the writing done about Coltrane’s life, the film frames his 1957 overcoming of twin addictions to heroin and alcohol as being the single pivotal event in his life-journey, after which he simply progressed onwards and upwards. While it is true that his release from addiction was a pivotal spiritual awakening, one still needs to pay attention to what Coltrane himself wrote in the liner notes to A Love Supreme:

As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him.

In short, there was quite clearly a second spiritual awakening, which Coltrane frames as being “duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE” after “a period of irresolution.” This second awakening appears to coincide with the beginning of his relationship with Alice McLeod (later Alice Coltrane) in 1963, which I think forms an important part of the story.

Yet this film still resonates, and would be a great way for someone unfamiliar with Coltrane to get an introduction to what all the fuss is about. For convinced fans, just know that it is in the end is more an appreciation as it is a critical biography, and then turn up the volume and enjoy.

Jamie Howison

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