This is one of my very favorite Trane records—definitely in my top 5. Recorded in late 1963, this record (which is actually half live and half studio) finds Trane just coming out of his "ballads" period and becoming more explorative, leaning more towards his 1961 explorations. This is truly one of his best and consistenly wonderful recordings.
All the music here is great, whether recorded live at Birdland or in the studio. The live pieces ("Afro Blue," "I Want To Talk About You," and "The Promise" ) are all very powerful. To me, perhaps the highlight of "Afro Blue" is the drumming of Elvin Jones. Throughout the tune it is often difficult to hear him keeping a steady beat, but you know it's there—you can feel it. Elvin's powerful, free yet steady support pushes the rest of the group to play at an extremely high level as well. "I Want To Talk About You" features a stellar unaccompanied Coltrane solo. This is some of the best sax work you will ever hear in your life. Trane stretches way out without abandoning the melody of the tune, something that is extremely hard to do. He does it gracefully and beautifully.
The rest of the material here is equally great, but I believe that "Alabama" stands out. It is a Coltrane original crafted from a Martin Luther King Jr speech. This song was written after the Alabama church bombings and it is literally a prayer. To some it may seem very laid back, but to me it is quite the contrary: intense, smoldering, and spiritual. The haunting melody pours out of John's saxophone on top of a deep drone played by McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, while Elvin adds some dark color on the drums. It's sort of a precursor to "Psalm" from A Love Supreme.
The only thing I don't like about this CD reissue is the bonus track "Vilia." Sure, I'm always happy to hear new music from this group, but "Your Lady" is such a perfect ending to this album and "Vilia" almost ruins the mood. This is not to say it isn't good; it just doesn't fit in here, despite it being from the same session.
If you love John Coltrane, or just like him a little bit, you will instantly fall in love with this album, just as I did. This is a record for fans of Trane's early and late periods alike. Any true lover of jazz will appreciate this beautiful music.