Musical Theology With John Coltrane, Robert Johnson

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Naxos continues to release episodes from the Masters of American Music documentary series from the '90s, and here are two from the latest releases (the two others profiling Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie). Not a straight biographical doc or even a chronological one about his album releases, The World According to John Coltrane (59 mins., $19.99) takes a more meditative, wider view of looking at the artist and how his experience and outside influences shaped his music. Interviewees include jazzmen and Coltrane sidemen/friends Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Rashied Ali and Tommy Flanagan, as well as the voice of wife/pianist Alice Coltrane. Oddly, we don't hear so much of a peep from Coltrane himself in any clips, his only expression through lengthy - and amazing - TV musical performances. If the DVD has a main thesis, it's that Coltrane was an endless seeker, not just with his music but with his life. So while he could have had a fine career simply re-recording Giant Steps and A Love Supreme over and over, his pursuit of all kinds of world music - gospel, Asian, African, Middle Eastern - permeated his own tunes. Who else could turn a poppy showbiz tune from The Sound of Music ("My Favorite Things") into a near-orgasmic, whirling-dervish exercise in intensity? "I don't know where he got the energy from," Ali notes. "He was relentless. He was always pursuing the music." Another release is the documentary Bluesland (85 mins., $19.99), a geographical trip through the country relating various blue styles. It's a more disjointed effort of a lot of elements in search of connection, though buoyed by the observations of late talking head author/critic Robert Palmer. He blends just the right amount of the personal and the professorial in his take on the music. The filmmakers make an admirable attempt to either name-check, show a photo or play a music or performance clip from pretty much every bluesman and woman from 1920-65, even the more obscure ones (Barbecue Bob! Tommy Johnson! Peetie Wheatstraw!). Unfortunately, Houston's Lightnin' Hopkins rates only a solitary photo. And while it's long been believed there are only two existing photos of Robert Johnson, this film shows a third - which has not to Rocks Off's knowledge been verified as authentic in the years since Bluesland was originally produced (narrator Keith David's telltale MC Hammer-style big suits nothwithstanding). Pehaps the best quote in the film comes from bluesman Skip James, in a clip from a '60s TV show after he was "rediscovered" in the folk boom. The highly religious James explains good versus evil in blues music thusly:

"Now Gawd and the Debbil, they don't get along so well. You gotta separate those guys!"

Joel Osteen couldn't have said it better. Naxos/EuroArts, www.naxos.com

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