JOHN COLTRANE — Africa / Brass (review)

JOHN COLTRANE — Africa / Brass album cover Album · 1961 · Hard Bop Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Sean Trane
One of Trane’s first albums for the Impulse! label, that spent a real fortune to whisk him away from his former recording contracts, only to give him total freedom in the studio. By the look and sound of Africa/Brass, one can only say that this was the best-ever spent money in the music business, because it propelled John Coltrane, the follower to Trane, the groundbreaker in just a short time. Indeed, up until his entry in the Impulse house, Coltrane had been relatively conventional in his works for the Blue Note, Atlantic and Prestige labels, but here, Trane breaks out loose from all the restraint he’d been kept for years before and that no-one would match for years after (even Ornette and Cherry). Appearing with a first version of his first classic quartet (with Reggie Workman on the contrabass, Garrison would come later), the line-up also feature a five-man brass section that includes Dolphy, Hubbard and Priester.

Right from the first bass notes, followed by Tyner’s brooding piano, you just know you’re in for a lengthy and complex trip down Sonic Challenge Lane, and the haunting brass arrangements adding much depth and intensity to Trane’s manic sax blowing. If Elvin’s drum solo in the middle section is not his most inspired, the theme reprise is particularly strong, until both Chambers and Workman end the hostilities. Could’ve the gentle trad-number Greensleeves have been anymore challenging? Well it isn’t, but Trane does pull another magic trick from his horn, and the often-covered standard takes on a mean streak that’s rarely been heard since. The closing Blues Minor holds the same kind pf ontesinty than the Africa epic, mainly due to the dynamic brass arrangements.

I’m not sure why, but the A/B album got a second session the following month (June 61), this time receiving a bigger band treatment (a ten-man horn section) under the direction of Eric Dolphy, and are we ever glad it got an official release quickly after. While it reworks two of the three tracks of the first session, the second versions are relatively different as to not really have a déjà-entendu feel, if you’re to listen to both sessions in a row. Indeed Africa and Greensleeves go somewhat further than their slightly older siblings, but the real gift is the Underground Railroad, a tremendous and intense track that could be considered a real bonus track on a modern CD album.

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