Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra: India & Africa: A Tribute to John Coltrane

The music John Coltrane created during his final years was quite often driven by his embracement of Eastern spirituality and his African cultural roots. Here, drummer-percussionist Anthony Brown, via his 16-piece ensemble, reimagines several of Trane’s richest ’60s compositions that fall into that particular niche of his work, augmenting them with a few pieces of original music that unobtrusively tie the original themes together. Splitting the program into halves he titles “India: Diaspora” and “Suite: Africa,” Brown, who has previously recorded tributes to Ellington and Monk, recorded the bulk of the program live at Yoshi’s in Oakland last April.

It must have been as much a visual feast as a musical one. Whereas Coltrane used only standard jazz instrumentation, Brown, for the Indian segment of the set, incorporates several instruments common to traditional Indian music (sarod, tabla, tambura), as well as shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and sheng (Chinese mouth organ). African percussion supplements Western trap drums in part two.

For all of its expansiveness, India & Africa stays largely true to Coltrane’s melodies on key tracks such as “Liberia,” “Living Space,” “India” and “Africa.” But it reaches some of its most illuminating moments when Brown and company deviate furthest from the script. The all-too-brief “Dahomey Dance,” originally from Coltrane’s 1961 Olé album, is stacked with festive polyrhythmic layers of percussion and horns that suggest classic Fela. The title track from that same album, although it naturally owes more to Spanish influences than anything Indian, fits snugly into the first half of the CD. And ending it all with a fired-up take on Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” which Coltrane nailed so definitively, is just perfect.