TWO BANKS OF FOUR / “Afro Blue”
Who wrote the oft recorded “Afro Blue”? A good number of people think Coltrane was the composer. Others are confident that Oscar Brown, Jr. is the originator. Although Coltrane surely popularized the song in jazz circles, it was not his creation. As for Oscar Brown, Jr., the recently deceased composer and vocalist, it is partially true to consider him because he did write the lyrics for the song, although he did not come up with the song itself. The composer of “Afro Blue” is Cuban congolero Mongo Santamaria.
Let’s start with an early version from the true author available on Mongo’s Greatest Hits. This is a great example of late fifties/sixties Latin jazz. It starts out with trademark licks by Mongo and layers on syncopated instruments beginning with a bass line. (Which, by the way, is a methodology initiated by the great Chano Pozo in his composition “Manteca,” the tune that marks the recorded beginning of what is now known as Latin jazz). Other instruments enter building up to the flute. The song ends with conga improvisations over the bass ostinato and flute flourishes. What stands out is the pure joy of the melody.
With the addition of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s lyrics, "Afro Blue" (from Brown's Sin & Soul) becomes pure poetry. My man was a genius as a lyricist plus he was a wonderful, warm and sensitive human being. I was blessed with the opportunity to see him in a number of different settings, including at conferences in Chicago where he simply and humbly spoke his mind, told his truths. As a vocalist he had an articulateness that I’ve noted in a number of other Chicago singers: think Lou Rawls, Joe Williams and, of course, Nat 'King' Cole in particular. Their enunciation was so sharp you could understand every word and they sang that way partly because the words did indeed matter to them. Anyway, pay attention to the lyrics Oscar Brown wrote. This is the sparest of arrangements, you might even accurately call it primitive; just voice and a conga drum. Exquisitely beautiful.
I like the Diane Reeves I Remember version for two reasons. One, the sound of her voice and two the specificity of the rhythm section. The broad and bold beauty of Diane’s voice grabs me in all my grab-able places. I like her scatting, particularly when she does that high note thing. Notice that the rhythm section is not just pounding out a 6/8 rhythm. Although I don’t know the name of this particular clave, you can hear that it is a specific beat and that they maintain it throughout. Diane’s version is more specifically Cuban than is Mongo’s in terms of the rhythm base.
I could do a dissertation on the Live at Birdland Trane version. Suffice it to say, this is the classic John Coltrane Quartet and that means it is without peer as a powerhouse jazz unit. No other quartet could harness that kind of power. There is a whole school of pianists trying to get to what McCoy Tyner achieved with his thunderous left hand, not to mention those swirling treble runs or the sophistication of his chords. This group was so bad that they were untouchable even when Trane wasn’t playing, and Lord, help us, when Trane sailed in, it was like a fifth gear kicking in. I must make mention of Elvin Jones on drums. Elvin Jones. Elvin Jones. Elvin Jones. Damn how could one man create that many polyrhythms while interacting and improvising with McCoy and Trane?
The Imani Winds is a classical wind quintet made up of Valerie Coleman on flute (she also arranged their version of “Afro Blue”), Toyin Spellman-Diaz on oboe, Mariam Adam on clarinet, Jeff Scott on French horn, and Monica Ellis on bassoon. I’m not a fan of classical music, but I really dig what they do with "Afro Blue," especially how they incorporate African aesthetics into a specifically European form. In particular listen to some of the flute techniques and the vocal work. This is perhaps as definitive a contrast as you might ever hear when you compare Imani Winds to Trane. This is from Imani Winds' eponymous album on the Koch label.
The last version is my pick because of the uncredited vocalist. This is from a London-based duo called Two Banks Of Four made up of DJ/MC Dillip Harris and Robert Gallagher. The arrangement is interesting and as dance music I like what they do with the bass line, but it’s the vocalist who really makes it for me, especially on the out chorus where she repeats “shades of delight, coco hue / rich as the night, afro blue.” Try singing it with her and you will see how superb her breath control is and how difficult it is to maintain the pace, not to mention, at the same time, inject the feeling and dynamic swell she does. Beware, there are two versions in circulation; this is not the remix version but rather the one from their City Watching release.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
I like the variety of these versions. The interpretations are different enough that you sometimes don't feel like you're listening to the same song. For instance, compare the 'Trane version and the Oscar Brown, Jr. version—completely different. If I had to pick just one though, I'd have to go with Dianne Reeves. That surprised me, because I'm not a big Dianne Reeves fan. But in this case, I like everything about her performance. The rhythm, the accompaniment, and most of all, Dianne's vocals—all of it is near-perfect. I also really like the original and the Oscar Brown, Jr. versions. Both are very stripped-down and souful. I'm with that.
And, while I'm at it, let me add one more version to the mix. It's a medley by Susana Baca that she calls "Afro Blue/Zum Zum" (from Baca's 2003 Espiritu Vivo CD). The great thing about this version is the richness of the instrumentation and the new melody line Susana and Co. have created. It's also interesting to hear Oscar Brown's lyrics translated to Spanish, particularly considering that it's a Latin jazz tune to begin with. ... One more thing. I promised before that I'd be doing a write-up on Susana Baca, and I will. I've been listening to a lot of her music lately. The hold up is because I'm trying to decide which album to feature. Maybe I'll feature a few of them at the same time. Soon....
—Mtume ya Salaam
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