1963 was an important year for the John Coltrane quartet. It was a year of transition for the group, because it bridged the gap between his older "sheets of sound" recordings like GIANT STEPS and SOULTRANE and his avant-garde recordings in the years to follow. Just several months later, Coltrane would release the lovely CRESCENT album as well as the landmark, A LOVE SUPREME, where Coltrane takes his music to a new level. In the summer of '63 Coltrane performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with his regular quartet, except with Roy Haynes on drums, as opposed to Elvin Jones. Jones was spending a few months in jail at the time for some type of drug offense, but by the time their European tour came around in the fall, Jones was back in the band with the other two regulars - McCoy Tyner (piano) and Jimmy Garrison (bass).
I must echo other reviewers in stating that AFRO BLUE IMPRESSIONS is essential for your Coltrane collection, even though it is often overlooked by critics. This 2-cd set was not released until 1977 (ten years after Coltrane's death), but the music is familiar, as it is a collection of works from GIANT STEPS, IMPRESSIONS, LIVE AT BIRDLAND, and a couple other important recordings. Even though these tracks are a re-hash of early-60's Trane, you will find that he takes an abstract turn in his solos. Therefore, apart from the main themes, the music was actually somewhat revolutionary for that time.
The first disc opens with a track from the soon-to-be-released CRESCENT LP, 'Lonnie's Lament'. This 10-minute epic explores the softer side of Coltrane while still covering an extended portion of music with free jazz elements to it. This same style can be mirrored in the equally somber 'Naima' from GIANT STEPS. Following these softer tracks is the high-energy 'Chasin' the Trane'. Coltrane follows earlier practices by leaving the piano out of this track. Other recordings of it, such as on LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD featured none other than the prolific Eric Dolphy. I often look to this song as a method of explaining Trane's growth as an artist because of its striking similarities to Ornette Coleman's late 50's work, which also featured a piano-less quartet. The absence of piano allows the soloist more freedom in the phrasing of notes. Closing up the first disc is one of my favorite recordings of 'My Favorite Things'. Clocking in at a solid 21 minutes, the quartet really stretches out here to an eventual breaking point where Jones and Trane are left to play against one another. Some listeners may complain that the sound quality begins to fade at this point, but I don't let it bother me too much, as the quality of the performance more than makes up for it.
The second disc opens with Mongo Santamaria's 'Afro Blue,' which I find to be one of my favorite Coltrane pieces. In some ways, this specific performance pales in comparison to its lively counterpart on LIVE AT BIRDLAND, but in other ways, specifically Coltrane's extended solo, it adds new life to the piece. Following 'Afro Blue' is 'Cousin Mary' from the GIANT STEPS album. This is a hard-swinging modal piece that fits in quite nicely on this record, although it would soon represent an element of the past in the context of Coltrane's late-60's peformances. AFRO BLUE IMPRESSIONS also has a wonderful recording of Billy Eckstine's 'I Want to Talk About You' with its trademark 'extended credenza' which spans a solid six minutes this time around.
Finishing up the second disc are probably the two most avant-garde pieces, both coming from the IMPRESSIONS LP, 'Spiritual' and 'Impressions'. I prefer 'Spiritual' with Eric Dolphy on it, and you may want to consider picking up LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD for an awesome listening experience. The bass clarinet intro on that recording will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Do not allow this to taint the AFRO BLUE IMPRESSIONS version, though. Coltrane is absolutely wonderful on this piece, and the break between the intro and the main theme in 3/4 time is outstanding.
I urge all Coltrane fans to pick up this worthy 2-disc live set. At times, the sound quality could be better, but you're not going to find another performance like this anywhere. The choice of tracks will be famliar, and the musicianship, especially that of Coltrane, is a solid encapsulation of his musical versatility.