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Music DVD Review: The World According to John Coltrane

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As with the other documentaries in the Master of American Music series, the best thing about the newly remastered DVD of The World According to John Coltrane is the large helping of music from this modern jazz monument. Long noted, sometimes disparaged, often praised for his lengthy solo explorations, the high points of this DVD are all in these characteristic solo performances with his quartet mates, McCoy Tyner on the piano, Elvin Jones on the drums, and Jimmy Garrison on the bass.

There are classic performances of the early innovative "Giant Steps" and the elegiac "Reverend King Alabama." Perhaps his most popular work was his recording of "My Favorite Things" on which he plays the soprano saxophone. The documentary uses a filmed studio version of the piece, interrupts for some commentary, and then morphs into an outdoor concert version which ends with a standing ovation. There is also some of the early work with Miles Davis illustrated by both artists soloing on "So What."

Some attention is paid to his life: born in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926, his father died in 1938, leaving him to be raised by his mother who was instrumental in his religious training. He enlisted in the navy in 1946 and played with the Navy band. He did some early work with rock and roll bands, like that of Earl Bostic, to support himself while he also played with the more innovative bebop groups like Dizzy Gillespie. But the major portion of the documentary, like the others in the series, is devoted to the music.

Commentary is provided by musicians like Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Tommy Flanagan, and Rashied Ali. Heath describes how he listened to Stravinsky and other classical composers. Shorter talks about how he tried to use his saxophone to do the kinds of things other instruments were doing. They talk about his interest in the music of India and Africa and its influence in his own music. Composer La Monte Young, very often thought of as the originator of minimalism, points out minimalist tendencies in Trane's work.

Perhaps the most significant commentary is from his wife Alice who played piano in the later version of his quartet and then quintet with the controversial Eric Dolphy in what is usually considered his avant garde period. She notes the spiritual nature of his music derived from his early religious training and then his study of Eastern music. He saw music not as an end in itself, but "as a means to enlightenment," "a probing of soul and spirit with his audience as active participants." "Musical structures," he felt, "map specific states of consciousness." Music, it seems, was to be a source of mystical awareness. The passionate collisions of harmonies that some critics found nihilistic dissonances had their best analogies in the rhapsodic states of many worshippers in the churches of his youth. They are best compared to a phenomenon like speaking in tongues.

Alice Coltrane goes on to explain that Trane's greatest wish was to play with some of the great spiritual musicians of the world, a wish he died before realizing. The documentary ends with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago fulfilling Trane's dream playing with dervish musicians in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

The documentary written by Robert Palmer and narrated by Ed Wheeler was winner of Japan's Swing Journal's 1991 award for Best Music Program of the Year and MIDEM's (Marché International du Disque et de l'Edition Musicale)1992 award for best musical special. Running time is just short of an hour.

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