John Coltrane's Africa/Brass: Still Amazing

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John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass from 1961 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Earlier this year, I got a copy of the Speakers Corner LP reissue of Coltrane’s incandescent 1961 classic, Africa/Brass. The other night I listened to it after listening to some straight-ahead, more mainstream jazz. I was amazed, even though I’ve heard this album many, many times. It was recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, produced by Bob Thiele, and the Speakers Corner vinyl reissue sourced it from the original master tapes. Knowing the recording is sourced from the original tapes isn’t always a given when you buy vinyl these days as it’s typically “Caveat Emptor” (“Buyer Beware”).

It is such bold, fearless, and visionary music. It was recorded in 1961, during a period where many African countries were becoming independent, and African music and art were becoming better known in America, though not as well known in European colonial powers like France, Belgium, or England.

Operated by Am-Par Record Corp., ABC-Paramount was a subsidiary of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Eric Dolphy wrote the arrangements for the big band based on McCoy Tyner’s chords. This was Impulse A-6, an early release on the ABC-Paramount adventurous jazz label. It would never be a hit record like Brubeck’s Time Out or Davis’ Kind of Blue. It delved into unfamiliar musical territory, was powerful and not an easy listen.

Downbeat magazine reviewer, Martin Williams, gave it a tepid review. He gave it only two stars in a January 18, 1962, out of a possible five. Here’s a sample from that review:

“I question…whether here this exposition of skills adds up to anything more than a dazzling and passionate array of scales and arpeggios. If one looks for melodic development or even for some sort of technical order or logic, he may find none here.”

While Africa/Brass may not have sold well or met the expectations of ABC-Paramount brass (Thiele produced all of Coltrane’s Impulse albums), that was to change with Coltrane’s later Ballads album, and even more so with the John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman album, both of which became big sellers for Impulse and remain popular classics.

Fifty years later, history has proved him wrong. The album is a legendary classic, as innovative and as challenging as it was when it was released so many years ago.

Here you can listen to “Greensleeves” from this album that’s still amazing after all these years.