In his early thirties, when he came to prominence with Coltrane's group, Ali had already developed a highly original drumming style, favoring swirling multiple rhythms that created the effect of a whole orchestra. Unlike most drummers of his day, he followed Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, who eschewed keeping a steady beat, implying the pulse and playing around it. Nevertheless, Ali never forgets basic rhythms, and even though he overlays multiple patterns and textures, the beat is always there. John Coltrane called his style "multidirectional." Ali's finest early recorded work is on Interstellar Space, a duet with Coltrane. This bare-bones context reveals the richness and complexity of his approach, and he has continued to explore the duet format over the years. Many of his recorded duets are with saxophonists, but one that I have always cherished above all is his 1975 unrehearsed first-time encounter with violinist Leroy Jenkins, entitled Swift Are the Winds of Life. The two pioneers show that they can do just about everything, and they do it with swing, lyricism, and melodic grace.
Ali comes to town in tandem with another great saxophonist Sonny Fortune with whom he will perform on Friday, October 15, during this year's Edgefest.
[Originally published in October, 2004.]