Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Chasing Trane on Netflix

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: 
  1. 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? 
  2. 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 veryvery deepMy 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!



Having watched the documentary, i see it the same way as Stef.Totally agree with his comments.
That's why, in the end, i would not recommend it-at least to someone who is not a beginner with Coltrane's music,Free Jazz or improvisation in general.

It is quite amazing that still the establishment cannot cope with the last phase of Trane's music. But is it? I see this doc as another way to normalize his music, to make it part of the so called "serious music" -as in contrary to his last, totally free, period.

I think this answers the question on why they did not invite someone from his later period (wouldn't Mr. Pharoah Sanders be available?...). They never wanted to present his later period music as it was: a political entity which, though, was based on a spirituality that the record industry couldn't accept or cope.Or, for some people at least, his way to present the Cry of his people.

I don't want to comment on some of the participants of the doc (their ties with the establishment are well known), but it frustrates me that still Coltrane and his wonderful, free of all preconceptions later period music is being abused or intentionally forgotten in such a way.

The music will always stay with us thankfully.

Martin Schray said...

The film has been available on Netflix for quite some time, I saw it earlier this year. In the end it’s only a very mediocre documentary, mainly due to the approach of the director. The cinematic means are very conventional, the film consists to a large extend of talking heads, which give us their view on John Coltrane. The other main ingredient are endless sequences of photographs. The whole film is like looking at a photo album with texts and listening to music (it is played permanently, even during the interviews, which reduces it to a mere staffage). There’s no deeper insight presented, instead the film tries to deal with John Coltrane's whole life in 100 minutes, which is why it must fail (the Miles Davis documentary "Birth of the Cool" has a similar problem). Coltrane's last musical period is just dealt with for six minutes, this is Stef's and Fotis's main criticism. However, especially John Densmore speaks very appreciatively about this phase ("They - the audience - just didn't know they were witnessing something ahead of its time"), Sonny Rollins anyway and neither the critic Ben Ratcliff nor his biographer Ashley Khan actually talk pejoratively about this phase, they rather describe the audience's reactions to Coltrane’s music. Only Professor Cornel West makes it clear that he hasn’t been able to cope with Coltrane's new direction - but it’s not clear why he was chosen as an expert for the film anyway. The film’s fundamentally weakness is that Coltrane can only be heard through quotes read by Denzel Washington and that there are too few longer original recordings, only at the end you see some private footage. Especially the film snippets of his new quintet at the Newport Festival are among the few moments worth seeing.

Stef said...

Thanks Fotis and Martin for the comments. I'm not saying they're talking pejoratively about this phase per se, but apart from Densmore (and is he truly the jazz expert? I am a fan of The Doors, but for different reasons) nobody seems to really appreciate this new direction or even bother to provide any insights into the value of this later phase, as if it's a kind of appendix to Coltrane's musical legacy that actually ended with A Love Supreme.

Martin Schray said...

It’s true that the documentary provides no insight in the music of Coltrane’s later phase - nor does it provide anything except some basic knowledge and some anecdotes. That’s its biggest deficit. Then again, it’s a mainstream production, obviously aimed at a mainstream jazz audience. For these listeners Coltrane’s oeuvre often ends with A Love Supreme, it’s true that the creative achievements of his later period remain obscure for them. But this is no wonder: Our blog is only for a small minority of “jazz“ aficionados, most jazz fans don’t care about free jazz (you only have to listen to Wynton Marsalis).
If it comes to the people interviewed in the film: John Densmore has studied music at the Califormia State College, among others under the jazz cellist Fred Katz. He has always adored Elvin Jones as a drummer and later he named his own band Tribal Jazz. I would consider him at least as someone with a very good understanding of Coltrane’s music (in contrast to me, who’s only an affectionate amateur listener - who loves Coltrane’s later recordings a lot, of course).

Stuart Broomer said...

The film "The World According to John Coltrane" is the only documentary that includes interviews with musicians who clearly understand the breadth and depth of all of Coltrane's music because they shared similar visions: La Monte Young and Roscoe Mitchell. Such musicians (and other comparable figures like Terry Riley, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker) don't get asked because musicians that make Coltrane-level demands on an audience can't be as familiar as Clinton and Washington and the Marsalis Bros. The Coltrane recordings that are likely best known are the original recording of "My Favorite Things" and "A Love Supreme." "A Love Supreme" is the least Coltrane-like of his recordings because it's a codified statement, each segment with a specific expressive goal, rather than an exploration, similar in this regard to "Giant Steps," where the goals are technical and theoretical. They're made to be remembered, and once recorded were hardly ever touched again. Stuart Broomer

George Lane said...

Thanks Stuart Broomer for recommending the film The World According To Coltrane; I was not aware of it and it looks to be very good. I admit to being turned off on this one precisely due to its "establishment-friendly" nature, and from the comments of those who have seen it it seems I was right in avoiding it.

Stuart Broomer said...

Thanks George,I loved your playing on Ole.

Colin Green said...

The BBC documentary, “Saint John Coltrane – A Love Supreme” has some interesting things. It doesn’t say everything that can be said about Coltrane, but then what 45 minute documentary could?


I took on some of the issues concerning Coltrane’s late music in a review from a few years ago:


Stuart has already answered Stef’s first question. I assume the second is largely rhetorical.

Stuart Broomer said...

Colin, Thanks for pointing out that 2013 review. It's excellent, especially in emphasizing the special quality of "Interstellar Space." Along with that, the late Coltrane recording I turn to is "Meditations." I may be the only FJB writer old enough or geographically placed to have heard the late quintet live. I've never heard a recording that even suggested, let alone conveyed, the experience of being in a room with that music. Its coherence was achieved live through sheer large-room-filling power, intensity and density. There was no space for any kind of analytical distance. For some in the room it was ecstatic (me among them); for others, it was a horrifying betrayal.

Nick Metzger said...

I really enjoyed this 2013 piece on Coltrane's late period (65-67) by Stewart Voegtlin for Arthur magazine and return to it occasionally:

Nick Metzger said...

Use this link, sorry:


Anonymous said...

I think it's fair to say that any jazz documentary made these days that wants to have an appeal beyond the most hard-core jazz fans is going to have an "evangelical" aspect: it's going to try to reach and perhaps convert the uninitiated. Going in-depth into late Coltrane would not contribute to this goal. I thought the documentary did a very nice job of giving access to the broad appeal of Coltrane, musically and culturally, while hinting at the more adventurous stuff that is always available to listeners who want to delve into it.

By way of contrast, consider Ron Mann's *Imagine the Sound* (1981), which I only watched for the first time a few weeks ago. Outstanding footage of Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Paul Bley, and Archie Shepp, mostly focusing on the music rather than extensive interviews or celebrity talking heads. But of almost no value whatsoever to those not already a part of the free jazz cognoscenti. It is a movie made by insiders for insiders, and while I can understand why a lot of us might prefer this approach, it's also more likely to preserve the music as a relic or museum-piece.

Nick Metzger said...

If by evangelical you mean commercial I agree. But they are largely preaching to the already converted these days. Many, many documentaries have already covered this ground, and those who wanted to watch such things have likely already done so. I would argue that it's this approach that relegates the music to relics and museam-pieces, rather than delving into the unusual and fiery remainder.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't mean "commercial" at all in this context. Anyone thinking someone would make a jazz documentary for commercial purposes these days is deluded.

Nick Metzger said...

I agree with that statement for docs on jazz other than Coltrane or Davis. There is still a sizeable market for their contemporary work.

Trevor Barre said...

Isn't this all rather similar to the furore that surrounded Ken Burns' massive documentary on jazz, and it's (relative) dismissal of the Free Jazz period (summed up rather cursorily in the final episode)? Same with 1969-75 Miles Davis and his 'electric period'. And Ornette, post-73, with his various Prime Time iterations. It's all part of the same narrative.
I try to enjoy what is in front of me, rather than what isn't, and at times wonder if we don't get a vicarious pleasure from feeling that the 'establishment' just doesn't 'get it', with the accompanying sense of superiority?
It's pretty obvious why the average jazz fan (should such an entity exist) didn't and doesn't, enjoy 'Ascension', 'Live/Evil' and 'Dancing in Your Head': they push the boundaries of 'jazz', which one of the factors that makes them great to listen to.
Just don't expect the 'straights' to get on board, man.

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