Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rashied Ali, RIP

One of my favorite drummers has passed, Rashied Ali.

Do you remember the waves of crashing percussion sounds when you first heard "Interstellar Space", that John Coltrane record in duo with our hero? What an impact it left on me. The quartet of kit drummers for me has always been Max Roach, Tony Allen, Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali. And now just Allen survives. And can you imagine the rhythms of a band that featured both Ali and Jones? Coltrane had the vision for THAT one. Ali is a man who stood up for his beliefs after Trane passed and was rewarded with what I suspect was a recording industry blacklist (every other Trane associate was given a deal with Impulse Records), so he started up his own beautiful DIY label, Survival. And this man also had his hands broken for refusing to play ball with the mafia and sell alcohol in his club. Tendonitis and/or carpal tunnel syndrome plagued him thereafter, but Rashied still recorded some fine albums. Here's the obit from the London Times. Used without permission in loving respect for the subject. We'll miss ya, Rashied.

Rashied Ali

Photo: Philippe Levy-Stab/Corbis

Rashied Ali

“Those were trying times in the Sixties,” said the jazz drummer Rashied Ali. “People were screaming for their rights, and wanting to be equal, be free. And naturally the music reflects that whole period.” In the two years he played in John Coltrane’s quartet, from 1965 until the saxophonist’s death, Ali revolutionised jazz drumming. He replaced the charismatic percussionist Elvin Jones, who was a master of polyrhythmic playing, with a style that eschewed explicit statements of rhythm in favour of more abstract playing. He created a wash of textures, described by another of his associates, the saxophonist Archie Shepp, as “similar to what action painters do, in that it creates various surfaces of colour which push into each other, creating tensions and counter tensions”. In Ali’s hands, the job of jazz drummer transferred from the traditional job of timekeeping to one of interactive improvisation with melodic instruments.

Paradoxically, Ali’s first experiences as a professional musician had been in the tightly structured genre of rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Born Robert Patterson in Philadelphia in 1933, he changed his name to Rashied Ali, in emulation of his father. Growing up in Philadelphia, he sang in a gospel choir as a child, alongside his mother who had been a vocalist for the big band leader Jimmie Lunceford. After studies at the Granoff School in his home town, Ali played with many of the city’s R&B musicians, with only occasional forays into jazz.

This changed when he moved to New York in 1963 and became caught up in the cutting edge of modern jazz development. He played with several innovative musicians, including Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, all of whom were mingling free improvisation with a conscious evocation of jazz’s past history in the blues. He was recruited for a tour of Japan by the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, whose forte at the time was lengthy improvisations on a single piece lasting anything up to an entire nightclub set. This taught Ali valuable lessons in endurance and in creating varieties in texture over 30 or 40-minute extemporisations.

Coltrane first invited Ali to join his band alongside his existing drummer Jones, saying: “I could have a band that played the way we used to play, and a band that was going in the direction that I have now.” Jones soon quit, leaving Ali, the bassist Jimmy Garrison and the saxophonist’s wife Alice Coltrane to build the shifting colours and textures that Coltrane required behind his impassioned solos.

Their finest work is on the album Meditations (1966), although more extended playing can be heard on their live discs made at the Village Vanguard in New York and on tour in Japan.

After John Coltrane’s death, Ali continued to work with Alice, but in due course based himself in New York, running his own groups, organising festivals and setting up the record company Survival. This documented his work, and that of his close colleagues, on albums such as New Directions in Modern Music and Moon Flight. Throughout the 1970s he operated an informal “loft” jazz club in New York called Ali’s Alley, which acted as a focal point for experimental musicians. Some of the musical relationships he formed then, such as duos with the drummers Milford Graves and Andrew Cyrille, lasted until the present decade.

When free jazz fell out of fashion in the 1980s at the height of the fusion era, Ali continued to run his record company and studio, and worked around New York where an interest in free improvisation remained. In the 1990s he developed the idea of combining his music with performance art, and set up the troupe Cosmic Legends, which brought improvising jazz players together with poets, actors and dancers.

Partly through the influence of the saxophonist John Zorn, who encouraged Ali to record, and to play with the so-called Downtown group of innovative jazz musicians, his career underwent a renaissance in the late 1990s. In the present decade Ali was busier than ever, working with the saxophonist Sonny Fortune and his group, as well as in a duo with the bassist Henry Grimes. He will principally be remembered, however, for his work with Coltrane, who said of him: “He allows the soloist maximum freedom, laying down multidirectional rhythms all the time.”

He is survived by his wife Patricia.

Rashied Ali, jazz drummer, was born on July 1, 1933. He died from a heart attack on August 12, 2009, aged 76

Here's a few Rashied highlights for this blogger:

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