Many of today's younger improvisers look back with awe to the 1960s and early 1970s, when political, social, and cultural upheavals in American life were accompanied by radical challenges to the jazz tradition. Most of the musical pioneers of those days are gone, but a few remain with us, including the great drummer Rashied Ali.
Ali started his musical career in his native Philadelphia working with blues singers, R&B bands, and jazz players. He moved to New York in the 1960s and became involved with musicians who were revolutionizing the music. Drummers such as Sonny Murray were redefining the role of the drums, eschewing the strict timekeeping role and changing the tonal palette of the traditional jazz kit.
Ali worked with young revolutionaries, among them Archie Shepp, and he sat in with fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane, who soon added Ali to his band. For a short time he played alongside the thunderous Elvin Jones, but he soon had the drum chair all to himself. Although relatively unknown, Ali was now a member of a premier jazz group; for two years he toured the world, recorded, and took part in Coltrane's ongoing search for new forms of expression. After the death of the great innovator in 1967, Ali eventually moved to Europe. Returning to New York, Ali found a depressed musical scene; to remedy the situation, he opened a performance loft named Ali's Alley and started Survival Records, a pioneering artist-run company, which put out some fine releases. Neither lasted long, but for the last quarter century he has continued to make fine music, often with younger musicians.
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.