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A Different Drummer

Rashied Ali

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/30/2009

Backing up a legend is a sure-fire road to obscurity. Hard-core football fans may recognize the names Gary Cuozzo, Earl Morrall, George Shaw, and Tommy Tuckerton, but nearly everybody has heard of Johnny Unitas, the quarterback who all the aforementioned snap-callers played behind at some point in their careers. That backup position is where drummer Rashied Ali found himself in the mid-1960s when he started playing with John Coltrane. Eventually, Ali took over the drum stool previously occupied by Elvin Jones, who since 1960 had merely anchored one of the most innovative and celebrated quartets in jazz history.

Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Ali--born Robert Patterson in Philadelphia in 1935 to a musical family (his mother and four sisters played piano; his father's cousin is drummer Charlie Rice)--honed his chops while playing through his stint in the Army. Back home, he worked with early R&B and blues acts such as Dick Hart and the Heartaches and Big Maybelle before hooking up with other Philly-based jazzmen such as trumpeter Lee Morgan and organist Don Patterson.

By the early 1960s, Ali started forging his own vocabulary, an open and propulsive sound, and after moving to New York in 1963, he spent the decade gigging with some of the players who would open up jazz idioms into freer forms: Albert Ayler, Gary Bartz, Paul Bley, Marion Brown, Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and James Blood Ulmer.

It was with Coltrane, though, that Ali's approach fully bloomed. Ali only played with Coltrane during the last two years of the saxophonist's life, 1965-67, but those were arguably two of the most prolific and probing years of any 20th-century artist's life: a flabbergasting 23 albums date from this period. Not all of them were released during Coltrane's lifetime, and Ali only played on nine, but those albums--such as Meditations and the epic Live in Japan--document a consistently progressing artist at his most experimental. Ali didn't swing like Jones--to be fair, nobody could swing like Jones--but his multidirectional drive and responsive ear made him a sympathetic partner to this period in Coltrane's work, when music from other cultures was influencing the saxophonist's approach and he embraced a more internally investigative attitude in his soloing.

Interstellar Space, a 1967 duo recording between Ali and Coltrane that wasn't released until 1974, captures their sympathetic musical relationship, as this suite of cosmic recordings mines an imaginative territory of breathtaking emotional ambition. It was this torch, jazz as spiritual exercise, that Ali carried until a heart attack claimed his life Aug. 12 at the age of 74. Not for nothing was Ali often tapped by reedsmen for their heavyweight odysseys--see: Charles Gayle's 1991 Touchin' on Trane or David Murray's 1993 Body and Soul--and Ali's skillful presence powered such exploratory groups as Phalanx, By Any Means, Prima Materia, and, most recently, his own Rashied Ali Quintet. He never tired of giving himself to the music, and his exploratory sound continues to open third eyes.

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