Tuesday, October 8, 2013

John Coltrane: Africa/Brass, Volumes 1 & 2

Obviously, Trane's Giant Steps needs to be covered here as his greatest early recording, with Blue Train not far behind, but there was something really eye-opening back in 1990 hearing the incredible tune "Africa" from the saxophonist's first Impulse! album, Africa/Brass.

It was first the amazing opening with the emulation of animal and other sounds by a host of instruments played by some of the leading lights of late 50s and early 60s jazz.  These include Booker Little, whose death of uremia at age 23 took away someone who could have been a true legend and the versatile Freddie Hubbard on trumpets; the trombonists Charles Greenlee and Julian Priester, the latter a member of Sun Ra's underappreciated band; and the man who arranged it all, the alto sax and bass clarinet master Eric Dolphy.

Beyond these excellent players, there was the phenomenal rhythm section of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassists Paul Chambers, who'd worked with Trane in the great Miles Davis Quintet, and Reggie Workman, and, of course, the sublime Elvin Jones, one of the few drummers whose power and flexibility could work so well with such a large ensemble.

Trane's solo work on "Africa" is also pretty spectacular and, along with "India," demonstrated a palpable shift in his moving away from the so-called "sheets of sound" to something more exploratory of the broader potential of sound on his instrument rather than speedy runs on the changes that characterized his work up to about 1960.  The piece was recorded on either 4 June, according to the original album notes, or the 7th, as indicated in the liners for the second volume of recordings from the sessions. 

More importantly, "Africa" and "India" were concerted efforts at delving into sounds that evoked the music of non-Western cultures, reflecting Coltrane's growing interests in African, Indian and Middle Eastern sounds.

After his great success with "My Favorite Things" the year prior, Coltrane tried other popular tunes on which to work his modal magic on soprano sax and the attempt here was with the venerable "Greensleeves."  While the recording is usually regarded as an inferior one to "MFT," this blogger finds the piece not comparable and the ensemble does a fine job with it.  "Blues Minor" is just that and it is well played.  Both were recorded on 23 May 1961, two days before Trane recorded his final album for Atlantic, OlĂ©, which also featured Dolphy.

In 1974, with the supervision of Coltrane's widow, Alice, a second volume of recordings from the original 1961 sessions was released.  Alternate versions of "Africa" and "Greensleeves" were accompanied by another traditional tune, arranged by the leader, this being "Song of the Underground Railroad."  While the latter two were recorded on 23 May with other selections from the first recording, the version of "Africa" was from 7 June and had an expanded orchestra conducted by Dolphy and including trombonist Britt Woodman (instead of Priester); four French horn players; a euphonium; tuba player Bill Barber, who had played with Miles Davis' so-called "Birth of the Cool" project a dozen years before; and Pat Patrick on a variety of reeds.  Instead of Paul Chambers, this session featured another solid bassist, Art Davis.

While the versions of "Africa" and "Greensleeves" may not be superior to the original released versions, it is interesting to hear the difference with the additional instrumentation, while "Song of the Underground Railroad" is another solid rendering.  In all three cases, Dolphy's different approaches to orchestration are indicative of his ability to experiment successfully with unusual instrument groupings and his strong sense of dynamics.

Dolphy's association with Coltrane was highly controversial at the time, for reasons which seem petty and trivial now, but, in light of the massive changes enveloping jazz as it moved from a primarily "hard bop" sound to the freer expressions wrought by Trane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, among others, there was a genuine fear that the music was being pulled into chaotic waters. 

While Dolphy continued to experiment and extend his ideas further "out," albeit with less visibility than he had with Trane, the latter, in fact, soon moved into a period of recording that seemed calculated to prove that he could play in "traditional" ways, recording with the great Duke Ellington and with smooth as silk vocalist Johnny Hartman, as well as issuing an album of ballads.  Not until 1965 did Coltrane decide to let loose the reins and move into so-called "free jazz."

Perhaps Africa/Brass could be viewed as an early effort by Trane to take the music into a transitional zone, not too far removed from either the "standard" boppish sounds of the fifties or the freer work that was to dominate the sixties.  In "Africa," he and Dolphy created a sound that was eminently successful, while the other pieces on both volumes may not be quite so because they used the orchestration as coloration, rather than as a vital and integral part of the atmosphere of the tune as in "Africa."

In any case, this recording was an unusual way for Coltrane to launch his association with the fledgling Impulse! label, which, however, got a reputation for new, innovative music.  Africa/Brass went a long way towards heightening that feeling and for helping to make the label a standard bearer for newer forms of jazz that were, more or less, defining the new decade.

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