Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Film Supreme

It's in my own best interest to take a musician with me to see a film about music. Or even two.

When I saw that the 2nd annual Afrikana Independent Film Festival was showing "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary," I wasted no time in inviting a musically-inclined date. Then, for good measure, I invited another favorite musician, because I can never have too many musicians to ask questions of.

And while he wasn't available for dinner beforehand, my date was, so we strolled over to Asado and managed to grab the last two bar stools in a place full of the usual Friday night revelers as well as Afrikana-bound film lovers.

For all we knew, there were counter-protesters eating and drinking away, too.

Given the clutch of people outside on the sidewalk waiting for an opening, one thing no one was doing was lingering, so we ordered guacamole and chips to buy us time to check out the menu and then ordered promptly.

Although I'm not particularly a heathead, I was completely seduced by the honey sriracha shrimp tacos with their reassuring kind of heat - the kind that immediately fires up your mouth and then drops off quickly. All the fire, none of the pain. My date seemed to think his barbacoa tacos surpassed mine, but he was mistaken.

We didn't gulp our meal, but we definitely inhaled it faster than my grandmother would have approved of, mainly because of all the hungry people hovering near the door. I got up to use the loo before we left and a guy swooped in and claimed my stool before I even opened the bathroom door.

Our walk continued to the Grace Street Theatre where we met up with musician #2, a longtime Coltrane fan. One of several festival photographers came over and asked to take a shot of us representing some of the first VIP passholders in line (I'm just hoping it's not captioned, "A musical idiot accompanies two men with a clue").

Inside, we found excellent seats in the center and watched a jazz trio onstage, notable because the sax player's instrument was clear. As in see-through. I don't know about you, but I had no idea clear saxophones existed.

And I'm going to guess that Coltrane himself couldn't have imagined such a thing, either.

The film was a fascinating primer on Coltrane's short life (he died of liver cancer at 40) and for me, it was invaluable in laying out how the man's sound and musical philosophy developed. Equally compelling was learning who had influenced him along the way: Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk.

Of the various talking heads in the documentary - John Densmore of the Doors, Carlos Santana, Bill Clinton, Wynton Marsalis and various former bandmates of Coltrane's - by far the most engaging was Cornel West, who managed to add a dramatic element (eyes wide, voice inflection, body lean into the camera) to every comment he made, often eliciting laughter from the crowd.

One of the funniest anecdotes told was about the extended solos Coltrane did while working with Miles Davis. In one scene of Davis' band playing live, we could see Miles taking a cigarette break on the side of the stage with other musicians while Coltrane blew his solo.

Apparently, Trane's solos ran way longer than Davis' and he called him on it. Trane explained that he didn't know how to stop playing and Davis told him to try taking the horn out of his mouth. Hilarious.

And because Coltrane never did any TV interviews, his words from print interviews and liner notes were read by Denzel Washington to accompany still photos and that would be my only complaint about the film. It's impossible not to recognize Denzel's voice, which makes it tough for the words to register as Coltrane's.

There was footage of Coltrane playing at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, where his atonal, more challenging and exploratory new style caused half the attendees to walk out mid-set.

Interestingly enough, one of those who'd walked out was saxophonist Plunky Branch who, along with hip hop artist Talib Kweli, gathered onstage after the film to discuss Coltrane and take questions from the audience.

Not surprisingly, Plunky had some regrets about walking out that long ago day.

I didn't walk out of the film a Coltrane expert by an stretch, but I did leave with a far better understanding of the man and how his soulful, spiritual tone became a new standard in jazz. Like Santana said, Trane didn't limit himself to any one genre because he "played life."

Walking out of the theater, all three of us acknowledged that we'd learned things about Coltrane we hadn't known and isn't that the point of a great documentary? It only made sense to begin our post-film discussion (and my questions) on the walk home.

Once my date and I were back at my place and comfortably ensconced on the balcony, I played the only Coltrane album I own, not "A Love Supreme," but "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman" from 1963.

It sounds like the ultra hip late night music of the early '60s when the U.S. was on a post-war high and acting like it was the coolest kid on the planet. The kind of sound that inevitably involved a low-ceilinged club, lots of cigarette smoke and a singer, in this case, Johnny Hartman, with the classic jazz vocal range of an Ella Fitzgerald.

And, you know what? His sax solos frequently lasted longer than the verses sung by Hartman. Unlike Miles Davis, though, neither of us had any complaints about that.

Conclusion of a musician and a musical imbecile: no one beats Trane for "playing life" on a warm September night.

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