The World According to John Coltrane

I was lucky enough to see John Coltrane's classic quartet several times in the 60s and was always amazed by his total relaxation amid the cascading wails and yodeling fast runs that came out of his saxophone. He, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones were completely absorbed, listening to one another so intently that one couldn't help but join them, even in a noisy nightclub. This 1992 documentary by writer-director Robert Palmer, codirected by Toby Byron, starts off with familiar talk about family and church, some of it voiced over scratchy and blotchy TV performance footage, so I was prepared for the worst. Then comes a lively sequence that cuts between still photographs in sync with “Giant Steps,” and from then on this is pure pleasure. Byron and Palmer are among the few jazz documentarians with the good sense to let us listen to the music for reasonably long stretches without interruption; they present an entire fine Coltrane solo on “So What” with Miles Davis, a relatively stiff rendition of “My Favorite Things” on TV followed by a much better version in concert, a complete performance of “Impressions” with Eric Dolphy on alto sax and a fleet solo by Tyner, an equally full version of “Alabama” punctuated by talking heads, and two healthy chunks of “Naima” that exemplify Coltrane's later and freer style. There's also a stretch of intelligent musicology from composer La Monte Young and a convincing account of Coltrane's influence on rock. If you want to see—and actually hear—what the man and his music were all about, this is the place to start. 61 min.

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