DUO EXCHANGES: Rashied Ali, 1935-2009.

John Coltrane
Interstellar Space
Impulse : 1967

JC, tenor sax, bells; Rashied Ali, drums.

Rashied Ali and Frank Lowe
Duo Exchange
Survival : 1972

RA, drums; FL, tenor sax.

Rashied Ali and Leroy Jenkins
Swift Are the Winds of Life
Survival : 1975

RA, drums; LR, violin.

Despite being on an August hiatus, we couldn’t let the passing of Rashied Ali linger too long without adding our own tribute. Rashied Ali was one of most important drummers in jazz – both for his controversial tenure with John Coltrane and his remarkable second act as owner of both Survival Records and loft space Ali’s Alley, and for the stellar ensembles he led.

Rashied Ali didn’t invent free drumming. His metrically free approach was indebted to both Sunny Murray and Milford Graves. But thanks to his role in Coltrane’s last band, he was its most famous exponent. He replaced Elvin Jones in the drummer’s chair, a move that outraged fans at the time and still perplexes many admirers today. Jones was an undeniable musical master and emotional powerhouse of a performer — and here he was being supplanted by some dude who couldn’t even keep time?!? For many listeners, Rashied Ali’s playing came to represent a line in the sand. It marked the exact place where jazz became “too free.”

Of course for others Ali’s style was nothing short of a revelation. Although he had little of his predecessor’s considerable flash, it didn’t take long for anyone with open ears to register both his inspired playing and rapport with Trane. Gary Giddins notes: “He had a firm pulse and his ability to maintain a responsive equanimity inspired Coltrane to some of his more exhilarating performances.” Nothing shows this off better than their legendary duo album, Interstellar Space. It’s the pinnacle of their work together and “tested the extremes of improvisational equilibrium in a harmony-free vacuum” (Giddins again).

In his book Coltrane, Ben Ratliff writes about Ali’s entrance into the studio to record this session:

“Ain’t nobody coming?” he said to Coltrane.
“No, it’s just you and me.”
“What are we playing? Is it fast? Is it slow?”
“Whatever you want it to be. Come on. I’m going to ring some bells. You can do an 8-bar intro.”
They cut the record in one take. Ali says he wasn’t completely at ease, that the whole thing brought him up short. He still feels he could have done better if he had been prepared.

On the contrary. Maybe Trane, like Miles, knew that sometimes his musicians played best when they were a little off balance. In fact, the entire album is so exceptional that even the bonus cuts are highlights, as evidenced by this burning version of “Leo” that will remove the top of your head with the precision of a deli slicer.

Rashied Ali performed a number of other memorable duos over the course his career. Not to slight his equally fine work with Charles Gayle, Marilyn Crispell, and James Blood Ulmer, or with his own bands on albums such as New Directions in Modern Music, but there’s something special about the duo performances in how it showcases and frames his own performances and sensibilities. As he he said to Val Wilmer, “I sure do know one thing, man, I sure be trying to get next to whoever I’m playing with. I’m trying to get right inside them, to just think with them with one mind.”

Duo Exchange with Frank Lowe was chosen by Thurston Moore among his “Top 10 Recordings from the Free Jazz Underground.” It’s an interesting counterpoint to the Trane duets and a key document of loft jazz. If Ali felt somewhat tentative on Interstellar, here he plays with abandon, pushing the music the corners of your speakers. And where our previous Lowe entry showcased him exploring more of an inside-out mode, Lowe’s fire-breathing tendencies are in full flower here; skronk mode: activated.

Duo was the first release on Ali’s Survival Records. He noted: “We formed Surivival Records because record companies weren’t giving us a shot. They weren’t giving avant garde musicians the time of day, especially after Coltrane died. It was a trying time but it worked out really good because we turned a lot heads on this thing. I thought that was one of the best times in my career because I was learning so much! I was really honing in on my skills. We were really proud of Duo Exchange. It helped me get enough money to start producing more records.”

Ali’s duet with violinist and AACM maestro Leroy Jenkins shows another side entirely. It’s more lyrical, with flashes of classical style and compositional brio woven through Ali’s freeflowing rhythms. The 10-minute title track best encapsulates its strengths, but the entire album is a lovely mesh of sounds and styles that should be instantly accessible to most jazz fans. It’s no small credit to Ali that Swift Are the Winds of Life also features some of Jenkins’ finest playing on album. And that’s saying something.

Crucially, both of the above albums were put together by Rashied Ali himself through his Survival Records label. It shows off his abilities as musical conceptualist and ballsy businessman. As he put it, “If I’m playing with somebody, then I just try to take them to heights that would really get the best of out them.” He elevated everyone around him, heightened our sonic world, and that generosity of spirit cannot be replaced. Our time is lessened without him keeping time, and we cherish the sounds he left behind.

Category Rashied Ali, tributes