By Stef Gijssels
On Saturday I watched the "Chasing Trane" documentary on Netflix (maybe it was available in other countries earlier, but it's quite recent on my account). I can recommend it because of the footage, the pictures of his life, the context and the interviews.
I think it's great to have insights from Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, Reggie Workman, his sons Ravi and Oran, or more recent artists such as Kamasi Washington.
The only downside is that they stop commenting positively on his music near the end of his life. Like with many mainstream media, there is no real effort to understand what happened with his genius when he took it even a step further than his masterpiece 'A Love Supreme'.
Other interviewees include Carlos Santana, John Densmore (drummer of The Doors), Bill Clinton and even Wynton Marsalis (is this the guest list you would invite to discuss Coltrane?). There is some clear level of incomprehension among them - maybe except for Densmore - about the direction Coltrane took his music in, making it even more free, more expansive, more authentic, more spiritual, rawer, intenser.
Interestingly enough, they give him credit for his genius and authenticity but without a clear and full appreciation of the musical value he created near the end of his life, as if albums like "Ascension" (recorded 1965), "Meditations" (rec 1965), "Om" (rec 1965), "Kulu Sé Mama" (rec 1965), "The Olatunji Concert" (rec 1967), "Interstellar Space" (rec 1967), "Expression" (rec 1967) were of no real value to listeners, when he was taking jazz even a step further into deep abstraction and visceral feelings. They talk about going beyond what listeners can bear, and even changing the molecular structure of jazz. They praise his musicianship on the instrument. They talk about he pushed the boundaries of the sounds coming out of a sax like Hendrix did with the electric guitar.
But it is clear they are puzzled by the music itself.
The documentary was made and released in 2016, 50 years after these incredible albums were made. And these musicians are still puzzled by what they hear. Two areas of questions come to mind:
- Why did the documentary makers not invite people who did appreciate his later music, because truly, if he was a genius as they say, he must have gone to this sonic place for a reason, because the genius felt it was better, more true and more valuable? Coltrane influenced many of today's jazz musicians so why did the documentary makers limit themselves to commercial artists?
- How is it possible that 50 years later, Coltrane's music is still raising questions among the establishment? How is it possible that the notion of abstract music (less formalised, less explicit rhythms, harmonies and melody) offering a much more direct link to emotional expressivity has still not been understood, despite the fact that Coltrane was one of the first to take sounds this far?
Regardless, if you have Netflix, watch it.
To end my rant, here are some nice quotes by Coltrane, and recited by Denzel Washington in the documentary.
"To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am - my faith, my knowledge, my being... When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups.”
"After all the investigation, all of the technique doesn't matter! Only if the feeling is right.”
“There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are".
Coltrane is still more closely related to today's music than to the music of the 60s.
May he still inspire many!