The main challenge in producing a documentary about jazz artists is choosing the best way to frame the story.
How should a director talk about an artist’s life and music? Does the artist’s pure biography or mythology take precedence in the story? When it comes to music, a technical approach can lose casual fans, while metaphors can escalate into ridiculous descriptions. It’s hard to tie the two parts together in a way that shows why the topics deserve such attention in the first place. Two new locally released documentaries attempt to strike that balance.
In the jazz canon, few musicians are as beloved as tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. From his classic recordings with the Miles Davis Quintet to his own diverse work as a bandleader, he exemplified the best aspects of jazz, constantly pushing himself to greater heights as an improviser, unafraid of backlash from listeners. Where reviews. Fifty years after his death from liver cancer at the age of 40, he is still revered by musicians of all persuasions. Chasing Tranedirected by John Scheinfeld, unpacks the layers of Coltrane mythology through interviews with numerous biographers, peers, children and fans.
The film succeeds because not only does it give a relatively linear storyline of Coltrane’s life, but it discusses the context that shaped him – from the Southern preachers in his family to the fellow saxophonists he met in Philadelphia to the movement of the civil rights. This final subject features one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, playing Coltrane’s deeply meditative “Alabama” over footage of the aftermath of the attack on Birmingham’s 16.and Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed in 1963.
While Chasing Trane could have degenerated into a succession of talking heads, most of them offering insightful commentary. So, balancing Carlos Santana’s hyperbolic thought that Coltrane’s sound “rearranges the molecular structure”, Japanese Coltrane obsessive/author Yasuhiro “Fuji” Fujioka easily sums up the power of the saxophonist: “He makes me happy “. Coupled with live footage of Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet”, pianist McCoy Tyner (the band’s only living member) says Coltrane tricked his bandmates into thinking they were put on earth to play their brand of high-energy music. . When the film returns to a young Tyner hitting an aggressive solo, it’s clear that it’s not just words.
Denzel Washington voices Coltrane’s thoughts, reading interview quotes and album notes, without hurting himself. Clips from home movies also showcase a more relaxed side, with the saxophonist playing with his family, dancing around his yard and smiling away from the gaze of fanatical fans.
At the end, Chasing Trane offers a strong enough story for those new to the saxophonist’s life, while presenting it to die-hard fans in a way that makes it exciting. (The late-period footage of the Newport Jazz Festival is particularly valuable.) And any chance of hearing fellow saxophonist Sonny Rollins (a huge music guru himself) speak is precious. His thoughts, along with those of Coltrane biographer Ashley Kahn and dynamic philosopher Cornell West, make the film even stronger.
Trumpeter Lee Morgan also has a lot of mythology surrounding him. He became one of the finest hard-bop musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, practically making the style commercially popular with his funky hit, “The Sidewinder.” In 1973, at age 33, he was shot and killed between sets at New York bar Slug’s Saloon. The shooter was his common-law wife, Helen.
I called him Morgan, a film by Swedish director Kasper Collin, is as much a film about Helen Morgan as it is about Lee Morgan, and how their lives intertwine. Growing up in North Carolina, Helen eventually moved to New York, befriending musicians and artists, caring for anyone who needed a meal or shelter. Dizzy Gillespie hired the precocious 19-year-old Lee Morgan for his band, and he quickly rose to popularity, becoming a frontman who recorded numerous albums for Blue Note Records, including Coltrane’s. blue train.
The film does not give details about his career (“The Sidewinder”, which commercially marked the turning point of his label, is not even mentioned). He also mentions very little about his social activism in his later years. But it includes snippets of his music, live footage, and plenty of photographs taken during recording sessions.
Lee Morgan’s peers tell his story, a list that includes bassist Jymie Merritt and saxophonists Bennie Maupin and Wayne Shorter. The latter forgoes its usual elliptical delivery in favor of more linear stories. When Morgan was at his lowest, Helen took him in and helped him overcome his addiction and start playing again. From then on, they were inseparable. When another girlfriend came on the scene, Helen’s pride took over and she shot him. The act surprised everyone involved (including the killer, it seems). But unlike most stories of musician girlfriends, Helen was adored by all who knew her, even – as the film shows – after the murder.
The recurring plot device in I called him Morgan is an audio interview with Helen. After pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter and receiving probation after a reduced prison sentence, she eventually returned to North Carolina. Captured on squeaky tape, her voice reveals the church lady she has become, speaking factually about her life with Lee and how it turned out. Ironically, she died a month after the conversation, in 1996.
Collin’s pacing often veers towards the overly dramatic. Great tension is created by the re-enactment of the snowstorm that hit New York the night of the murder. “Search for the New Land”, a meditative and flowing piece by Lee Morgan, is used to build suspense on several occasions. But ultimately, Collin takes what appears to be a simple tale of love, jazz, and murder, and shows how there were more pieces to the puzzle. Even better, it forces you to find Lee Morgan’s records to rediscover his brilliant and inventive playing.