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Mongo Santamaria first recorded his composition "Afro Blue" in 1959, when playing with Cal Tjader's band, Cal Tjader Sextet. The first recorded performance of the piece, recorded live on April 20, 1959, at the Sunset Auditorium in Carmel, California, with composer Mongo Santamaría on percussion.
"Afro Blue" was the first jazz standard built upon a typical African 3:2 cross-rhythm, or hemiola. The song begins with the bass repeatedly playing 6 cross-beats per each measure of 12
8, or 6 cross-beats per 4 main beats—6:4 (two cells of 3:2). The following example shows the original ostinato "Afro Blue" bass line. The cross noteheads indicate the main beats (not bass notes).
While the bass sounds the six secondary beats, Paul Horn's flute solo and Emil Richards' marimba solo emphasize the four primary beats. Francisco Aguabella takes the conga drum solo on the first recording, quoting phrases from the vocabulary of the abakuá bonkó drum.
Using brushes, Willie Bobo plays an abakuá bell pattern on a snare drum. This cross-rhythmic figure divides the twelve-pulse cycle into three sets of four pulses. Since the main beats are grouped as four sets of three pulses (dotted quarter-notes in the top example), the bell pattern significantly contradicts the meter. Bobo played this same pattern and instrumentation on the Herbie Hancock jazz-descarga "Succotash."
The harmonic structure of Santamaria's version is a simple B♭ pentatonic blues.
In 1959 lyrics were added by prolific songwriter Oscar Brown. Abbey Lincoln recorded it for her 1959 album Abbey Is Blue. Oscar Brown himself included it on his 1960 album Sin & Soul. Later singers to record the standard were Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright.
In 1963, John Coltrane recorded "Afro Blue" with Elvin Jones on drums. Jones took the opposite approach of Santamaría, superimposing two cross-beats over every measure of a 3
4 jazz waltz (2:3). This particular swung 3
4 is perhaps the most common example of overt cross-rhythm in jazz. Coltrane and Jones reversed the metric hierarchy of Santamaria's composition, by performing in 3
4 swing (2:3), instead of 6
8 or 12
Coltrane also added several chords, making his version more harmonically sophisticated than Santamaria's original version.
- Cal Tjader's Concert by the Sea (Liner notes). Fantasy Records. 1959. 8038.
- Peñalosa, David (2010). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins p. 26. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
- "Succotash" Inventions and Dimensions (Herbie Hancock). Blue Note CD 84147-2 (1963).
- "Afro Blue," Live at Birdland (John Coltrane) Impulse! (1964).
- Conor Guilfoyle demonstrates 3/4 swing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEAyWsTLrYY
- John Coltrane performs "Afro Blue" with Elvin Jones on drums. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olOYynQ-_Hw