Archive for the ‘Film Review’ Category

CHASING COLTRANE: A FILM DOCUMENTARY

April 26, 2017

CHASING TRANE – A FILM DOCUMENTARY ON THE LIFE OF JOHN COLTRANE
A Film Review by Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

Monday – April 24, 2017 – Laemmle Theater in Pasadena, California

I recently enjoyed an exceptional film, unveiling the short life and times of John Coltrane. It is available at various art theaters throughout the country and gives the public a close-up look at the incredible, historic and genius musical work of saxophone legend, John Coltrane. It opens with a burst of colors and stars sprinkled across the screen, depicting a filmed galaxy that invites us into heaven’s door, accompanied by scattered saxophone sounds from the horn of our beloved jazz master, the unforgettable Coltrane. The marvelous music of this man infiltrates every scene of this motion picture, keeping jazz up front and elevating this bio-pic.

I was blessed enough to hear John Coltrane play in person. Young people today can only hear recordings, so the importance of complimenting this documentary with John Coltrane’s music is of paramount importance. Denzel Washington reads the words of this amazing man, becoming John’s voice in the film. Others talk about Coltrane’s personality, his two marriages and his majestic artistry. Some film participants are iconic musicians, biographers and of course his loving family members.

There are treasured film clips of when he played at Café Bohemia with Miles Davis in 1957, a time when he was just a fledgling player, but already showing the signs of becoming a legend. This was before Miles fired him for severe drug addiction. Benny Golson tells us that Coltrane was a happy addict, but unreliable. Jimmy Heath tells the story of how Miles caught him and Coltrane getting high, shooting up together, and Coltrane promised he would quit, but he couldn’t stop using.

Reggie Workman is on hand to tell the Coltrane story, along with Ashley Kahn, (Coltrane’s biographer), Coltrane’s close friend, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, President Bill Clinton, the great Benny Golson, Dr. Cornel West, our own Los Angeles based reedman, Kamasi Washington, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, his loving step-daughter, Ms. Andrews, his children from his second wife, Alice Coltrane, and the drummer with The Doors, John Paul Densmore.

Coltrane was born in North Carolina in 1926, a time of Jim Crow racism and challenging times for African American’s in America. His dad was a tailor and amateur musician. Both his grandfathers were ministers. His maternal grandfather was the presiding elder of the First A.M.E. Zion church. At twelve years old, the pre-teen lost his favorite grandfather, his father and both uncles. That’s when his mother moved from the Carolinas, first to New Jersey and then to Philadelphia, to better provide for her fatherless family. It was 1943, a tumultuous time in young Coltrane’s life, and he found solace in music. By the time he was sixteen, John Coltrane was already showing awesome style and proficiency on his horn. In 1945, he met and witnessed the genius of Charlie Parker. Shortly after, he wound up in the Navy and worked as part of the Navy band. In the film, we hear and see that young Coltrane mimicking his idol, Charlie Parker and becoming more and more obsessed with his instrument. Upon release from the Navy, he joined the Miles Davis group.

Carlos Santana speaks warmly and sincerely in this film. He praises Coltrane for going ‘cold-turkey’ and cleaning up his drug addiction. As he put it, “… averting the gates of hell.” Coltrane’s children remember how he kicked his heroin habit by himself, at home, and with the nurturing assistance of his loving wife, Alice Coltrane; a dynamic musician in her own right. Coltrane met Alice when she was playing piano with Gerry Gibbs. The film shows a blissful marriage and captures, in home movies, John as a loving and attentive father. His children tell us he was a romantic and wrote little love poems that he left all over the house for his wife to find. When she said she wanted to play the harp, John bought Alice a golden, concert harp.

After he got clean, we watch John Coltrane’s career gain momentum and his style and self-assurance become explosive. He joins Thelonius Monk’s band and this is where his confidence and genius begins to expand. Clean and fully confident, his first solo album is labeled, “Coltrane – the new tenor star”. All the while, the audience sees clips and still photos of his life and times with Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, Rashad Ali , Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter, Miles, and McCoy Tyner. McCoy called that period of Coltrane’s life “beautiful and committed. … A gift that came from the almighty.”

As his composition skills grew and blossomed, John began to show a deep spiritual side within his music. He was a quiet man, but talked politics and godliness with his horn. The Birmingham, Alabama bombing of that church where four little Sunday school children were killed, prompted Coltrane to compose the song, “Alabama.” He told McCoy Tyner that Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, after that bombing, inspired his song. He began to combine cultures in his music, picking up the soprano saxophone and having a huge hit playing a unique, Asian tinged arrangement of “My Favorite Things.” In 1965, he recorded “A Love Supreme.” Later, forming a group that changed the direction of his music. He was reaching for new horizons, becoming more Avant Garde, with Rashad Ali on drums, Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Pharoah Sanders came to prominence in this group.

It’s unbelievable to think that a man, whose professional recording and musical career started at age 33, would die of liver cancer at age 40. He gifts us with a body of work that still leaves the listener awe-struck. It’s hard to believe his incredible legacy of recorded music happened in a span of only seven years. This film captures the essence of John Coltrane and his magnificent music.
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