Whatever your favourite album or that you don't know anything about jazz, 1961 is without a doubt the year in which John Coltrane surpassed all other artists in any genre. In full swing, exploding with imagination and inspiration, John Coltrane became a must, even for his mentor Miles Davis, and he took advantage of the latter's "little break" to deliver a handful of extraordinarily fanstatic albums. First of all, there's the famous and smooth classic My Favorite Things, which would have been enough to make him do a great year, but it was literally unstoppable and everyone's capitalizing on its huge success right now. To tell you the truth, there are also the releases of the following albums: Africa/Brass (by Impulse !), Olé Coltrane and Bags & Trane released by Atlantic; Lush Life, Coltrane Jazz, Settin' The Pace released by Prestige and finally the collaborative album with Thelonious Monk released by Jazzland. It's insane, and not only because of the number of albums, but also because apart from the Prestige releases (which had been registered before signing at Altantic), there are many delicious treasures.
Yet at that time and without hindsight, John Coltrane's choices in the second half of 1961 were going to be very contrasted. While he had just finished recording Olé Coltrane, his last album with Atlantic which was to be released at the end of the year, John Coltrane saw his contract bought by Impulse, freshly created a year ago by Creed Taylor, and returned to work in the studios of producer Van Gelder with whom he hadn't worked since 1958. John Coltrane, who gave a series of very good performances, adulated by the critics and who was beginning to be revered by many fans, had for main goal to experiment and innovate with each work. On Africa/Brass, however, it was to his detriment, wrongly or wrongly, but many listeners, specialists and even artists close to him criticized the major changes he had introduced in his music. Although there are still a few reticent people out there, it will take time for people to understand the genius and the choices Coltrane made at the time. We also have to put into context the fact that free-jazz and pure and raw modal jazz were still struggling to make their mark, even though it was during these years that everything was finally put in place.
John Coltrane had everything at his disposal to succeed at Impulse, he had a huge "salary" for the time, important technical and financial means, popularity, and finally an almost absolute freedom that allowed him to express his art as he wished. Yet, as often in the history of music and in people's mentality, change and experimentation is frowned upon, as if the artist was distorting and disrespecting his art. An absurd resonance, because whether you like it or not, music evolves, improves and diversifies through innovation. It's also what I admire about him is that no matter if he's a jazz "star", he's gone to the end of his ambitions on Africa/Brass, even if he won't reproduce the same kind of experimental project later on, shot down by the critics.
Officially, Africa/Brass is led by John Coltrane in a quartet formation, composed of McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. But in reality John Coltrane has called upon a whole orchestra led by Eric Dolphy (one of the most innovative and talented jazzmen of the avant-garde jazz era) who make more or less punctual appearances, sometimes with "unusual" instruments coming from classical music, depending on the tracks, which almost makes one think of a kind of modern Big Band in the spirit. Even if it's obvious that this album offers a lot of changes and novelties in Coltrane's music, we can still feel the style and the playing timbre of his leader. How can I complain about being pleasantly surprised? That would be ridiculous. The Side One features a single track, Africa, a surprising composition by Coltrane that pays homage to his origins, keeping you on the edge of your seat without getting lost for more than 16 minutes. If I had to sum up the album Africa / Brass I'd define it as a very immersive sound journey, through multitudes of landscapes all equally extraordinary, fuelled by some really catchy free-jazz blasts. The album reaches its peak on the second track (initial version) Greensleevesn, a ballad of folk origin wonderfully readapted, accentuating precisely this aspect of "travel". This composition is sensational, because of its details, its solos and improvisations which are superimposed, sometimes you can't even concentrate on what you should be concentrating on. It is an orgy of sound, over 10 minutes of great happiness. To finish, the album ends on Blues Minor, a more hard bop in rhythm composition, less dashing than the others, but which once again reveals an artifice of sound, melody and chords so captivating, so seductive. I can understand that at the time Africa / Brass might not have been understood because of its difference, but I can tell you that today it remains one of the most beautiful jazz experiences I have ever listened to. A masterpiece that goes through time without taking a wrinkle