Dal Sasso Big Band: John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass Revisited

French big band's subtle reinterpretation of Coltrane's orchestral jazz piece stands up well against the original

There have recently been moves by contemporary jazz musicians to use the format of big bands for original work and for interpreting the compositions of past influential artists – in this country the latter has been pursued by Pete Long and by Simon Spillett, with exciting and dynamic results.

A similar venture has sprung from France, by Christophe Dal Sasso, this time taking the famous 1961 album Africa/Brass (Impulse A6) by John Coltrane, which many readers will be familiar with. This set Coltrane’s quartet with an orchestral backcloth, arrangements by Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner, orchestration by Eric Dolphy, and here Dal Sasso has chosen leading French jazz players to revisit this classic, keeping close to original arrangements, but reinterpreting and making subtle changes.

Greensleeves, Blues Minor and Africa are all taken from the original album, and these, with Song Of The Underground Railroad, were also issued later as part of The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions. The rest is material from this period of Coltrane’s life.

Comparisons with the originals are unfair but inevitable, and this recording stands up well. All credit to Karl Jannuska, whose drum patterns, like those of Elvin Jones, maintain the straight-ahead swing and produce punchy solos. The bubbling rhythms and rich modal chords of pianist Pierre de Bethmann solidify the bedrock, and the impressive introduction on Africa from bassist Manuel Marches transforms into a rhythmic undercurrent that runs through the piece. These three combine effectively and propel the assembled ranks.

Like the original, this orchestra has the sense of an integrated collective, very different to Coltrane’s later famous orchestral piece, Ascension. It’s disciplined but generates a freedom within the context of its formal organisation, never inhibiting improvisation. It has shades of the Oliver Nelson band at times.

Solos are in the capable hands of tenor saxophonists David El-Malek, forthright and strident, and Sophie Alour, whose inventive contributions are on You Don’t Know What Love Is and Greensleeves – the latter benefiting from a well constructed passage from Bethmann and Jannuska moving the pulse around. Geraldine Laurent’s light-toned alto pushes fluently, with long swivelling phrases, and pulls the tight orchestral accompaniment through the Blues Minor change of tempo, creating a sense of great urgency, especially with Thomas Savy’s deeply contrasting and hard-edged baritone.

CD1: Tunji; Greensleeves; Blues Minor; Africa (51.02)
CD2: Liberia; You Don’t Know What Love Is; Song Of The Underground Railroad; Naima (35.37)
Julien Alour, Quentin Ghomari (t); Jerry Edwards, Daniel Zimmermann (tb); Dominique Mandin (as, f); Géraldine Laurent (as); Sophie Alour (ts, cl, f); David El-Malek (ts); Thomas Savy (bar, bcl); Pierre de Bethmann (p); Manuel Marches (b); Karl Jannuska (d); Andy Berald Catelo (tambour); Christophe Dal Sasso (f, dir.) Live at Festival Jazz à La Villette, Paris, September 2020.
jazz&people JP2CD21005