44 recommended jazz docs

1. Don Cherry (Jean-Noël Delamare, Nathalie Perrey, 1973)

Opens like Alphaville meets Jodorowsky meets Brother from Another Planet and just when you think you've had your fix of Anthony Braxton reading Andre Breton poems over an extraterrestrial Don Cherry prancing through tunnels, slaying statues and free-fluteing in forests, the film ends!

Deliriants? What deliriants? Welcome to the Arthouse, people! You might make it out and you might not.

2. Brad Mehldau (German TV)

I don’t particularly enjoy speaking to jazz musicians about jazz. Something about the non-professional musician expressing their thoughts/feelings on jazz turns all but a few jazz musicians into Keith Jarrett. OK, not Umbria Jazz Keith Jarrett (2007.Google it) but just regular ‘you’re too stupid to geddit’ Jarrett. Maybe I am, but damn, don't get all Regular Keith on me. No one deserves that.

Anyway, before watching this, I fully-expected Brad Mehldau to sound off like Regular Keith (something to do with his exaggerated writhing), but he’s more cordial and, for me, holds much greater fascination. Most memorable is the passage where Mehldau manages to articulate what it is that’s so special about Coltrane’s music in a way that no critic has gotten near.

It’s a fetching film, shot initially during Mehldau’s stay in Berlin, where he’d set out to work on elegies and finesse his solo piano performance. We don’t meet the rest of his trio (bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy) until the last third when he returns to New York, but their dressing room exchanges and Village Vanguard finale are worth hanging around for.

3. Eric Dolphy: The Last Date (Hans Hylkema, 1991)

This Dutch film is set around Eric Dolphy’s last recording and tour, just 2 weeks before he died from a diabetes complication. Dolphy didn’t have the common jazz vices; he cooked well, wasn’t a junkie, didn’t even smoke or drink, and was almost completely unaware of his diabetes. He’s always comes across as one of the good guys, and it’s pleasing to see that backed up here by his family, band mates and contemporaries.

Just listening to Richard Davis recalling Dolphy’s swordfish steaks chokes me up a little. The rehearsal footage of the imperious Mingus telling Dolphy he’ll miss him when goes away is so hard-boiled beautiful that I think I’d feel that same overwhelming sense of foreboding even if I didn’t know Dolphy never made it back.

4. On The Road with Duke Ellington (Robert Drew, 1974)

“On the Road..” was first shown in 74(the year Ellington died) though filmed 7 years earlier, at a point in his life when Sir Duke had already won the greatest honours his craft could bestow and had long since created the benchmarks against which every other American composer needs to measure themselves.

What was and remains interesting about a Duke film are the disciplines he imposed on himself and that’s where Robert Drew’s film is at. A vérité doc by one of pioneers of the style, so by its very nature it was always going to avoid the usual blandishments when treating a figure ten times larger than life.

Sometimes steak and potato breakfasts, silky flirting and all-night comping sessions reveal more about a person than any number of talking heads. Footage of Billy Strayhorn’s funeral, an impromptu Louis Armstrong’s backstage drop-in, and of course concert material, further enriches the palette.

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