There is no such thing as a bad John Coltrane record, but that doesn’t mean that every album is equally good. There are essential records, where he took great strides forward on his personal musical quest; and secondary ones, where the movement is more lateral in nature. Afro Blue Impressions is a one of the latter. It’s a document of Coltrane and his band pausing to reflect on some of those giant steps.
Recorded in November of 1963 in Berlin and Stockholm, Afro Blue Impressions captures the John Coltrane quartet at an interesting time. This is the quartet at their most melodic; after the sheets of sound era but before the free-blowing of Ascension, with the influence of recordings with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman fresh in ears and minds. This time period is captured beautifully in a trio of recordings for Impulse! records from late ’63 through late ’64: Live at Birdland, recorded a scant few weeks before the concerts captured on Afro Blue Impressions; Crescent, where the studio version of album opener “Lonnie’s Lament” would appear; and the masterwork A Love Supreme.
These records put Afro Blue Impressions at a disadvantage. What does it offer that these other recordings do not? That isn’t exactly clear. Against its main competition, the truly essential Live at Birdland, Afro Blue Impressions is distinctly the lesser record. The two songs the records share, “Afro Blue” and “I Want to Talk to You”, are comparable in performance, particularly “Afro Blue”; but there is an immediacy and power to the Live at Birdland versions that these recordings somewhat lack. Here, the band is playing a variation of the themes and solos recorded a month prior, and they can’t help but feel a facsimile to some extent.
That said, concert staples like “Naima” and both takes of “My Favorite Things” are excellent. On the latter song, the melodicism of this era takes some of the spiraling rises of Coltrane’s soprano sax down a notch from prior recordings, even when compared to the Newport ’63 version from a few months before. In fact, down a few notches is a safe descriptor for this entire set. Even when the band cuts loose, it does so in a relaxed and comfortable manner. “Chasin’ the Trane” is more a ride in the peloton than a pursuit of the breakaway leader, and this mere five-minute rendition pales when up against the driving force that is the 16-minute original on the 1961 recording Live at the Village Vanguard.
Even with all those caveats, Afro Blue Impressions is a wonderful recording. To hear this band is never less than a delight, and the recordings made by Norman Grantz are a fine reminder of that fact. Furthermore, the work done for this reissue by Joe Tarantino is nothing short of stunning; the clarity and spatial sense puts the prior cd to shame, with the softest passages distinct and bright while the loudest sections never blow-out or distort in any way not intended by the musicians. Pianist McCoy Tyner is the musician who most benefits from this new remaster; regardless of how soft he plays, it never recedes into a fog of indistinct notes or gets buried in the wash of cymbals and saxophone. His interplay with Coltrane, and to an even greater degree with drummer Elvin Jones, are a joy. There are long sections where Coltrane sits out and lets Tyner switch from comping to lead; each time his understated and undervalued melodic sensibilities lead the then trio to interesting places before returning to the theme and Coltrane’s rejoining. The one caveat about the recording and remaster is bassist Jimmy Garrison’s lack of presence, but that is sadly impossible to remedy 50 years after the fact.
Afro Blue Impressions was a welcome addition to the Coltrane discography when it was first released in 1973, and this remaster extends that welcome into the 21st century. It captures the band relaxed and assured, comfortable in their playing. Yet despite the high quality of both performance and recording, it is only a corroborating piece of evidence when it comes to Coltrane’s legacy. His true greatness lies elsewhere.