In late 1970, more than 35 years into his career as a bandleader, Count Basie, working with producer Bob Thiele and arranger/conductor/saxman Oliver Nelson, went into the studio and cut this album of big band blues built on recent compositions -- and they made it sound cutting-edge and as urgent as anything the man had ever turned his talent toward. Basie and company got a Grammy nomination for their trouble on this, their most modern recording (right down to the use of electric bass on half the cuts), but never went down this road again. Ironically, along with The Atomic Mr. Basie album on Roulette, Afrique is one of a handful of absolutely essential post-big band-era albums by him. The band moved into new and novel territory for them, both musically and thematically, Hubert Laws' flute soaring gently over the group on a conga- and bongo-ornamented rendition of "Gypsy Queen" and Nelson's own sax sounding almost like a human voice on Albert Ayler's "Love Flower." "Afrique," "Kilimanjaro," and "African Sunrise" comprise an African-flavored suite that intersects with the modern soul instrumental amid some bluesy riffs on flute, saxes, horns, and piano, with Basie's keyboard (especially on the gorgeous "African Sunrise") adding just that final bit of understated invention to this swinging excursion across foreign fields. The album ends with Pharoah Sanders' "Japan," a wild ride across the East highlighted by Laws' exquisite flute and a driving performance by percussionists Harold Jones, Richard Pablo Landrum, and Sonny Morgan and an awesome finale on the saxes and trombones. RCA hasn't seen fit to reissue Afrique in America, but the label's French division has put it out remastered in an exquisite-sounding 24-bit digital edition that can be found as an import at better jazz stores and over the Internet.
AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder