Rashied Ali, the free jazz drummer whose asymmetrical and impressionistic drumming became the shifting backbeat of free jazz, crossed over on August 13, 2009. He was 76.
Ali will best be remembered as John Coltrane’s drummer during the crucial late phases of his career when he all but abandoned traditional jazz forms for a freer, heavily improvised style that reflected his religious ambitions. Beginning in 1965, when Coltrane invited an undistinguished Ali to join him on the bandstand of the Village Vanguard, until 1967, when Coltrane recorded his final session, Ali provided the shifting, dialogic drumscape that fractured rhythm just as Coltrane fractured melody. Far from keeping time for his bands, Ali’s drumming became its own improvisatory force, another shade in the tonal palate. Along with Sunny Murray, the great drummer for Albert Ayler’s quartet, Ali defined the sound of free jazz drumming.
Far from keeping time for his bands, Ali’s drumming became its own improvisatory force, another shade in the tonal palate.
Raised in the Philadelphia neighborhood where Coltrane used to live, Ali grew up with Coltrane’s music. As he said in an interview with European television, “[Coltrane] only lived like about four blocks from me when he was playing with Miles Davis in the 50s, and I used to just go outside of his house and listen to him practice all the time.” Coltrane’s music became Ali’s lodestar, and his career, which included stints with Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh Sanders, seemed oriented toward the inevitable moment when he would join Coltrane’s band.
Of course, Coltrane already had a drummer when he invited Ali into the band. Elvin Jones had made the transition from the metronomic drumming of hard bop to a more expressionistic style that accompanied Coltrane’s changing ideas about improvisation. When Ali came on, the band was to have two drummers, and the gloriously chaotic Meditations (1965) gives a taste of that arrangement. Jones fires away at his set, maintaining a taut anchor to a swinging rhythm while Ali’s drums pull the music to-and-fro like a violently shifting tide.
Jones, not to mention a host of jazz critics, could not comprehend this new rhythmic direction and left the band. Ali, along with the affably flexible bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist Alice Coltrane, and reedsman Pharaoh Sanders, became the core of Coltrane’s new group, which many at the time believed was pulling Coltrane in the wrong direction—away from traditional jazz. Critical consensus on the success of free jazz, and especially of Coltrane’s version of it, may never be reached, but for those who can’t resist its raw, emotional and spiritual pull, Ali’s drumming sounds nothing less than virtuosic. Coltrane was demonstrably taken with Ali’s playing. Nobody knows for certain whether Coltrane knew that the sessions for Interstellar Space would be his last, but there is something moving about the fact that Coltrane’s final studio statement was a duet with Ali. When Ali arrived for the recording, he had no idea that he would be playing alone with Coltrane. According to Ben Ratliff, who wrote about the incident in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ali had to ask Coltrane what the music would end up being.
“Whatever you want it to be,” Coltrane replied. “Come on. I’m going to ring some bells. You can do an 8-bar intro.”
Interstellar Space was recorded in one take, and it’s a long, overlapping wave of melodies and emotional impressions that is both difficult to parse and completely enthralling. Inscrutable like a convoluted mystical text, it has the immediate emotional appeal of a masterly work of abstract painting. Although Ali would later claim that he wasn’t at his sharpest during the recording session, the musical communication between him and Coltrane is palpable. It’s a moving and intimate recording, for all its esotericism.
After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Ali became a hub for the free jazz scene. During the 70s, he opened Ali’s Alley, a crucial part of the downtown loft scene, where New York’s free jazz community could experiment. As free jazz became more insular, and mainstream jazz lost its share of the popular music marketplace, it was musicians like Ali, who had a voracious ear and an accommodating temperament, who kept planting the kernel of free jazz into the instruments of young composers.
During his final decades, Ali committed himself both to the preservation of Coltrane’s and Albert Ayler’s music—he played drums with Prima Materia, performing Coltrane and Ayler classics—and developing his own, original music with his quartet. But, unlike many of his contemporaries who did their teaching in conservatories, Ali remained a working musician, playing in New York’s clubs, keeping his ear to the ground, and taking new talent under his tutelage on the stage. His contributions to jazz are irreplaceable, and the younger generation of jazz performers will be the poorer for not having his example or his patronage.
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