John Coltrane – Afro Blue Impressions (1977; 2013 reissue)

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I’d argue that these 1963 concerts with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and and Elvin Jones are the first thing every emerging John Coltrane fan should experience, after buying all of the tried-and-true essentials.

As this group — seen now as the one of the most influential in all of post-war jazz — ramped up toward major works like A Love Supreme, there had been a series of deep-breath recordings for Impulse: A ballads project, a date with vocalist Johnny Hartman, a collaboration with Duke Ellington. Each, in their manner, helped Coltrane rebound from a series of articulation problems in the early 1960s. Years of heroin and alcohol abuse had created devastating dental problems, and Coltrane simply couldn’t perform with the fiery, elemental wit and jaw-dropping sheets-of-sound power — not to mention with the pure, vibrato-free passion — that had marked his earlier work.

By 1963, however, he was rounding into shape — and Afro Blue Impressions (belatedly released in 1977; it’s set for gala reissue on August 20, 2013 by Concord as part of the 40th anniversary celebration for Pablo Records) finds Coltrane in Stockholm and Berlin feeling his way toward new discoveries — even as hints of unadorned joy return to his playing. Whether that was the result of the uniformly warm reception the group received in Europe, or that now-obvious sense of newfound direction, it’s there — cutting through Afro Blue Impressions like a late-afternoon sun shard.

This new 24-bit remaster collects all of the original Pablo double album’s tracks, along with three bonus moments from Coltrane’s Stockholm date from this tour — featured in part on the Charly release Live in Stockholm 1963: “Naima,” “My Favorite Things” and “I Want to Talk About You.” Taken together, they help provide a road map for where Coltrane will go, not just in the near term but further along, as he sought to loosened himself completely from the free-modal format that guided the unit at this point.

There are, of course, obvious hints of successes to come in “Lonnie’s Lament,” which would find a home on the following spring’s darkly intriguing studio effort Crescent, and reminders everywhere of the almost telepathic relationship Coltrane shared with Jones — the grounding element to this group’s last collaborative triumphs. Coltrane also touches on the incantantory freedom that became the hallmark of that final period through two markedly different takes on “My Favorite Things,” even as the quartet finds new wonder in its well-worn diatonic melody line. But then there’s “Chasin’ the Trane,” a still-luminous moment of blues neo-classicism.

Fifty years later, we know that this marks the mid-point of this lineup’s five-year run — and that Coltrane, of course, would be dead in another five — but not before embarking on a journey that would take him past the outer reaches of bop toward a final masterpiece in Interstellar Space. Afro Blue Impressions serves as a critical bridge between the two eras.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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