Afro Blue Impressions
If Louis Armstrong was jazz’s great innovator (and its heart) and Duke Ellington its key composer, John Coltrane remains its supreme improviser. In extending the saxophone’s potential he also stretched the music’s very fabric. Never had such boiling energy been unleashed; never had exultancy and anguish been so thoroughly intermeshed; never had jazz approached such majesty.
A Love Supreme is widely considered the ultimate statement from Coltrane’s classic 1960s quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. But this remastered double album, recorded a year earlier at a Berlin concert, certainly rivals any other live Coltrane recording for beauty and intensity.
It begins with Lonnie’s Lament, the mid-tempo swing gathering steam through Tyner’s solo as the pianist’s left hand and Jones’s cymbal crashes punctuate the rippling melodies and driving groove. By the time Coltrane cruises into the picture you feel the volatile potential, like a massing clouds on a summer’s afternoon. Sure enough when Tyner and Garrison drop out the saxophone and drums erupt with shocking force: one of many instances akin to being swept up by a tornado into a mad, swirling world of sound and fury, at the dead centre of which lies a peculiar calm.
That calm becomes the focus on the sumptuous Naima, Tyner releasing an unabashed romanticism, the flip-side to his explosiveness, before a storming Chasin’ The Trane (without Tyner) illuminates Garrison’s impetus on the hurtling momentum.
Then comes the centrepiece, a 21-minute My Favourite Things: surely one of the most transporting pieces of music from the eager-to-transport ’60s. Some people are underwhelmed by the nasal edge to Coltrane’s soprano sound, yet that oboe-like quality is what lifts one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s silliest songs out of its feyness, and speeds it to a whirling orientalism and mad exhilaration. Invention is inexorably piled on invention, and Coltrane’s re-entry after Tyner has spun his magic is one of jazz’s great moments.
A burning Afro Blue follows, with Jones’s detonating his triplet figures under the piano and horn, and Cousin Mary is a white-hot blues. This contrasts with the languid, rather sultry I Want To Talk About, which culminates in a long tenor cadenza of astonishing brilliance and coherence. Even better is the stately Spiritual, a superb example of the band achieving a sense of majesty.
The concert culminates in the skimming velocity of Impressions, the towering, almost supernatural force at the band’s disposal rearing up and breaking from the speakers in a series of waves.
That would be an appropriate ending, but the original LP material is augmented with versions of Naima, I Want to Talk About You and My Favourite Things from a Stockholm concert on the same tour. My Favourite Things apart, they are just as good, proving Berlin was no fluke. As if proof were needed.