Many Roads Out: Rashied Ali Quintet “Live in Europe” (Survival Records)
Written by Maxwell Chandler - Jazz Police
Wednesday, 08 April 2009
Rashied Ali (1935- ) was born into music. With a mother and aunts who all played piano and a jazz enthusiast father whose first cousins, Charlie and Bernard Rice, were both drummers on the Philadelphia jazz scene, it seemed inevitable that Rashied, too, would feel the pull of music. After some piano lessons and ambitions towards playing trombone and trumpet, Rashied finally settled upon drums, starting out initially with hand percussion instruments, congas, etc.
He cut his teeth playing in the U.S Army and, after his discharge, with various R&B groups including Dick Hart & The Heartaches, Lin Holt and saxophonist Muhammad Abibala, whom John Coltrane (1926-1967) had also played with years earlier. Studying at The Granoff School of Music (Philadelphia) and standing on his porch listening to his then neighbor John Coltrane play (1958) provided further foundation, and in 1963 he was asked to tour Japan with Sonny Rollins. After the tour he naturally gravitated towards New York with its burgeoning Free Jazz scene. Here he played with chief architects of the avant-garde (Albert Ayler, 1936-1970; Don Cherry, 1936-1995; and Archie Shepp, 1937- ).
Rashied is perhaps best known to casual jazz fans as sharing, then taking over the drum chair in the post classic quartet incarnations of John Coltrane’s ensembles (1965-1967). This point in Rashied’s career would serve not merely as a linchpin moment but for all that would come after, inspired by his time with John Coltrane. When John Coltrane passed away, Rashied gigged through Europe, studying briefly with Philly Joe Jones in England before returning stateside for a series of dates with hard-hitting luminaries including Jackie McLean (1931-2006), Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) and Dewey Redman (1931-2006).
In 1973, when there seemed to be a marginalization of jazz in favor of rock flavored fusion, Rashied opened a club “Ali’s Alley” (1973-1979) as a way to nourish the free jazz scene and stand as a sort of active lab for those who had not emigrated to Europe or headed off into more commercial waters. Some of the downtown loft scene can trace its roots from this haven. While involved with the operations of his club, Rashied also helped to coordinate The New York Musicians Festival and formed his own label, Survival Records. The label is aptly titled as there was such a wide diversity of style and intent under what was labeled “Free Jazz” by this time that it needed what ever protection and nourishment it could get to sustain it.
Aside from artistic evolution, survival is also an apt motif for Rashied himself, an artist who has always followed his own muse, never worrying about the bottom line or trends, remaining a vital and questing artist regardless of trends.
Live in Europe
The latest release from Rashied is a live recording featuring his group, “The Rashied Ali Quintet,” which he formed in 2003. Upon listening you can tell it is a live performance, not due to any sonic deficiency but to the energy brought forth relentlessly by the entire group. As far as the album’s actual sonics, they are pristine throughout. The album is a little over an hour long, made up of three extended pieces.
The first track, “Theme for Captain Black,” is by James Blood Ulmer (1942- ) who was Rashied’s bandmate in their Phalanx ensemble, which also included George Adam (1942-1995) and Sirone (nee Norris Jones 1940- ). The start of the piece finds the front line of Lawrence Clark on tenor saxophone and Josh Evans on trumpet entering in unison amidst staggered explosions by Rashied’s drums. It is within this initial frenzy that you realize how good the sound and production is, especially for a live recording. The bass enters with all rumbling low ends and the piano offers up dream like cascades.
The song picks up a little in tempo but more so in density. All the instruments coming in at closer intervals until all voices are ever present, creating a complex sonic pattern that is one part discordance and one part the piece’s theme. Just as quickly everything drops out at once, leaving only Rashied’s drums. Rashied is credited as being one of the first percussionists to free up drums from merely time keeping. For his first solo he shows some of what John Coltrane termed “multi-directional rhythms,” which in its simplest definition is a sort of free jazz way of playing drums. As done by Rashied, it is less about showmanship and more about emotion. It is an ecstatic saxophone which first enters back after the drum break followed quickly by Joris Teepe’s bass now doing a rapid pattern over which Greg Murphy’s piano enters in a dream of a kinetic frenzy.
Halfway through the piece finds Lawrence Clark showing the fecundity of ideas, a sort of next generation of sonic prophet following in the ecstatic footsteps of some of the others Rashied had once played with. The drama of this is nicely framed by a mix of suspend chords and percussive notes of the piano. For most of this piece the bass finds itself doing the role traditionally held by drums of keeping time and allowing for a foundation off of which the others may build. After Lawrence’s solo comes that of the trumpet which also finds the bass switching gears to a more pensive series of patterns, the boom like the grating of clouds scraping against one another.
Throughout the album Greg Murphy’s piano possesses a cerebral element which allows for shimmering smoke and discordant percussive runs while never becoming overly fragile or sounding as if merely hitting the keys hard and fast. For his solo statement he is joined in a trio within the group by drums and bass whose contrasts from his ideas form a sort of counterpoint of coloration.
The song’s general structure is not that of a traditional one; it builds tension via the momentum built up as the musicians play off of each other and through their solos. There is a sense of catharsis brought on by the piece’s energy akin to that found in the best free jazz, which has managed to age well. The piece ends as it began, in perfect ellipsis with the horns restating the main melody.
Rashied does not rest on his laurels; this album does not seek to recreate any of his past moments with which he initially caught the jazz world’s attention. Aside from being free from merely mining the past, one of the album’s over all strengths is Rashied’s refusal to remain static in regards to genre/style and what components constitute each of these things. “Theme...” starts off with very much a free jazz feel but Rashied does not feel the need to adhere to limitations of being held down by rules of a genre.
“Lourana,” the second track, is an original penned by Lawrence Clark. After the indefatigable assault of the first number, the start of this one feels almost balladish, which is a misconception quickly rectified. It is a smoldering piece, similar in spirit to what Miles Davis’s (1926-1991) free-bop group had done (1965-1968). The cadence for the whole band here is no less energetic, merely changed. The ease with which they appear to straddle styles underlines the great interplay among them. Having done many duet performances (Sonny Fortune 1939-, John Coltrane, etc.) has allowed Rashied to maintain with his playing a sonic intimacy with the audience and bandmates, even from within an expanded ensemble. The drama in this piece is no less engaging than that of the preceding piece. Reached via a different route, it shows how the band is powered by different aspects of various genres from which they take components, mixing it with what they themselves bring without loss of intensity through such diversity.
The final piece on the album is another penned by James Blood Ulmer, “Thing for Joe,” which is dedicated to Joe Henderson (1937-2001). It is the longest piece on the album, coming in at a little under half an hour. Having the sound of the more forward thinking Blue Note albums of the late sixties, it manages to capture the spirit of its subject while remaining a stand-alone work of art in its own right. There are points within the piece where all the band save for drums and saxophone drop out; the dichotomy between all the voices being reduced to two and then intermittently down to the lone voice of the saxophone is dramatic but remains completely organic, never coming across as a soporific “look at me” moment. When piano and bass join back in after the sanctified declamations of the saxophone, it is now a trio of drums, piano and bass, the main voice being that of piano. Here the delicate layering of the band’s interplay shows that “free” need not be all discordance.
There is no weak link or vestigial member of this ensemble. Rashied’s oeuvre is not divided into clear-cut phases, and the advantage of this is that nothing sounds out of date. There is no specific order in which one should approach his art, as the energy of spirit is ever present.
Review from the 2007 Lake George Jazz Festival
Written by J. Hunter
To some, 'Free Jazz' means sheets of ear-splitting cacophony that makes as much sense as a fractal painting, and takes just as long to decipher. Rashied Ali's set sounded nothing like the previous description, but it was 'Free Jazz' - free from fear, free from boundaries, and free to explore. Exploration is old hat to Ali: Aside from his time with John Coltrane, the phenomenal drummer has saddled up with the likes of Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and James 'Blood' Ulmer, so Ali's young quintet had an experienced guide as to the musical unknown.
As for Ali, he is a card-carrying member of that hallowed fraternity of drummers over age 70 that can tear it up like an offending paper bag. It's unclear whether Ali inspires the band or the band inspires Ali, but the end result is just the same, and just as epic.