What to Watch – Dazzling Jazz Documentaries
It’s a chilly night and you’re curled up, wine glass nearby, clad in your chic, easy loungewear. You’re in the appetite for beauty and artistic mysticism. You feel like diving into the meanings of art, what creativity in genius version entails. These two documentaries, on jazz masters Miles Davis and John Coltrane will provide the wondrous connection music as a divine art form can convey.
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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, (2019)
Made for the PBS series “American Masters,” this exquisite documentary is a stunning visual journey into the incomparable artistry of trumpeter Miles Davis. It’s also a radiography on a wider historical and cultural context made of painful segregation and on the poetics of a man who played sometimes without writing a note, solely improvising. It shows the anger and the wounds left by racism, the violence stirring in a hurt man, but also the prodigy of his art form, the geniality in his fate as a musician. And it’s also filled with Davis’ alluring and potent aesthetic fluctuations. Footage is glittering and the fragments of Davis in Paris are profoundly moving.
Voice excerpts are authentically Davis’ and are extracted from his own autobiography. A master of improvisation and feel, a poet of sound, this documentary film renders him through performances, interviews, writings and even some of his dabbling with painting and art.
Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker:
“Where Nelson’s firsthand, immediate engagement is implicit throughout, and where the movie provides its greatest thrill, is in his interviews with a wide range of people with a long-standing connection to Davis—musicians with whom Davis performed, including the saxophonist Jimmy Heath (with whom he recorded in 1953), the drummer Jimmy Cobb (who worked with Davis from 1958 to 1962), and the three surviving members of Davis’s great mid-sixties quintet (the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the pianist Herbie Hancock, and the bassist Ron Carter), and Davis’s longtime collaborator the arranger and composer Gil Evans.”
A wonderful journey into a poet of jazz and his aesthetic exuberance. A visual gem.
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2017)
The forward thinking artist, the mystical musician, the spiritual seeker, saxophone master John Coltrane is portrayed in this delightful visual document. The narrative begins in 1957, when Coltrane was an indisputable component in the magic of the formidable Miles Davis Quintet and is fired by Davis on account of his sabotaging drug abuse. And here’s one of the things so defining in the heart of the representation, as Roger Eber wrote: “Coltrane’s desire for greatness drove him to practice like a fiend.” As he came from pedestrian roots, he had to master his ambition and because of that he submitted himself to the agony of withdrawal, cleansing and transformation. With Coltrane, it was not just about prodigious predisposition but also about the fierce will power to achieve altitude.
“The movie is full of Coltrane’s own words, read by Denzel Washington. They’re a good match”, Ebert also wrote.
Ben Kenigsberg also wrote in The New York Times: “More productive, this film includes Mr. Coltrane’s performances, along with home movies, family interviews and the musician’s own words, read by Denzel Washington. Occasionally it delves into musical analysis, discussing how spirituality and events (the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, a 1966 visit to Nagasaki) affected Mr. Coltrane’s compositions, style and shows.”
Coltrane’s music is certainly the mixture between the greatness of mastery and of music as mystical experience.