Music

John Coltrane: The Bethlehem Years

David Marchese

His work in Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk's bands from the same era feature much more exploratory, innovative, and passionate playing.


John Coltrane

The Bethlehem Years

Label: Shout! Factory
US Release Date: 2005-08-02
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Taken from a recording session he attended a few short months after the release of his star-making Blue Train album in late 1957, The Bethlehem Years features John Coltrane in a context that adds nothing to his recorded legacy. The album makes sense for Coltrane fanatics who want to fill a hole in their history records, but as far as the casual jazz fan is concerned, it should be approached as little more than a marketing trick.

That's not to say there isn't any good music to be found here. The first disc of the two-disc set is an all-star recording featuring esteemed players like Philly Joe Jones, Donald Byrd and Freddie Green. The problem is that the album feels as much theirs as it does Coltrane's. It could easily be argued that Donald Byrd's playing on the album is just as vital as the more famous horn man's, but Donald Byrd reissues aren't going to empty many wallets, so we have a new Coltrane album. The playing is of a uniformly high quality, but no one astounds; and apart from one or two tracks ("Late Date" has a coolly bouncing theme and there's a nice run-through of Irving Berlin's "Love and the Weather"), the tunes rarely rise above pleasant. Coltrane pulls of a nice solo here or there, and some of them -- like the one on "Midriff" -- have traces of the lines he would later follow, but his work in Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk's bands from the same era feature much more exploratory, innovative, and passionate playing.

The liner notes tell us that the recording comes from two sessions: an all-star conglomeration of critic's poll winners (previously released as Winner's Circle) and a previously unreleased Art Blakey date where Coltrane sat in with the Jazz Messengers. A more polite Jazz Messengers is a good reference point for the music here -- although Blakey's bands of the time never did anything quite as syrupy as "The Kiss of No Return" (of which we're given three takes). Regardless, it's still kind of a kick to hear Coltrane play with Blakey - a very different drummer than the ones he normally played with -- but the musical results add nothing to our understanding of either musician. They were gathered at the behest of Bethlehem Records in order to market a gimmick. Almost fifty years later, it seems that Shout Factory Records has followed in that spirit.

Coltrane's lasting appeal stems from his musical and spiritual intensity -- the sublime fervor and restless intensity he brought to works like "Alabama" from Live at Birdland or A Love Supreme. His resonance has little, if anything to do with unassuming hard bop; others did it better and more interestingly. It's nice to hear Coltrane playing this kind of music, but only in the same way that it would be nice to hear Kurt Cobain playing in a Cheap Trick cover band. Which is to say that it's lovely to be able to fill in a part of the picture we hadn't seen before, but the music is not significant in itself. To be fair, The Bethlehem Years makes better cocktail party music than most cash-in jobs, and the packaging and liner notes show a fair amount of care, but that's a faint praise for an album credited to John Coltrane.

In the two years after recording the music presented here, Coltrane would cut Giant Steps and My Favorite Things, two works of wide-ranging individual and genre-changing implications. Those albums are complete works of astounding creativity and musical mastery; The Bethlehem Years is nothing more than a curio designed to fill a discographical hole and as such can be recommended to completists only.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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