I once had a Coltrane-loving dog. A few bars from anything by Coltrane’s classic quartet, and he’d flop down in a trance; you couldn’t move him until it was over. I thought he was either a genius, or had ear mites.
Of course, John Coltrane, we all know, was a genius, or something beyond. The musicians and pop philosophers who describe him in John Scheinfeld’s documentary, Chasing Trane, which screened for the press and industry at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, uniformly describe him as a celestial being, attuned to something far beyond ourselves. The film’s best tribute, I think, comes from fellow tenor player Sonny Rollins, who simply observes that you can’t describe music, especially Coltrane’s, with words.
“It’s like your body is doing something that your mind doesn’t want to do,” seconds Carlos Santana, speaking of the way some Coltrane music automatically makes him weep. (The beyond-words thing is a lesson lost on Wynton Marsalis and Cornel West, who spend a lot of talk on Coltrane’s sound in the film.)
Because Coltrane left so few recorded words, Scheinfeld relies on Denzel Washington to voice him, mostly by reading short, austere snippets of a written memoir. This might be some of Washington’s best work. He dials it down, and delivers intimate thoughts about learning to write music, or about the terror of dealing with the mutually nonverbal Miles Davis, who, Coltrane said, often seemed uninterested or angry. But Davis gave Coltrane space—he never tried to edit him, as someone observes in Chasing Trane.
What Scheinfeld does especially right in his film is to play Coltrane’s music through virtually every frame. It is mostly, but not entirely, in career order. At one point, the musical record drops back to play a primitive recorded snippet of Coltrane imitating Charlie Parker, and not well, in his Navy days. Eventually, the film unfolds with recordings of the quartet, in which Coltrane was joined by McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison.
John Densmore, the Doors drummer, spends some words telling how he kept making bathroom trips to get a glimpse of Coltrane during a gig at Shelly’s Mann-Hole in Hollywood. But you hardly notice, because Scheinfeld lets the soundtrack do the talking. Deejay, that Coltrane-loving dog, would have liked that.