As John Coltrane continued his journey into freer forms of pure, ecstatic expression, he would not be accompanied by the musicians with whom he had forged such an indelible bond during the span of five remarkable years. The music grew so wild that pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones shook loose from the band in late 1965, replaced respectively by the saxophonist’s wife, Alice Coltrane, and a young Philadelphian named Rashied Ali.
Ali, who died of a heart attack on August 12 at age 74, helped Coltrane forge even further into the avant-garde territory he had been exploring on his 1965 masterwork, A Love Supreme, and on that same year’s experimental large ensemble recording, Ascension, both of which featured Jones in the drum chair.
While Jones certainly was willing to dance along the edge with Coltrane, Ali was even more untethered from traditional notions of swing or groove. In fact, he had shaped his polytonal style alongside avant-garde heavyweights such as Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Marion Brown.
Born Robert Patterson in 1935, Ali began to pursue the drums seriously while serving in the Army during the Korean War, and later studied with Philly Joe Jones. While he initially followed hard bop drummers such as Max Roach and Art Blakey, once he heard Jones with Coltrane, he immediately identified with Jones’ freer, more-textured approach.
However, when Coltrane, who kept his ears open for young talent, invited Ali to play on Ascension, the drummer turned him down, not wanting to share the bandstand with another drummer – even Jones. Following that landmark recording, Coltrane wanted to expand the sound of his quartet and recruited a second tenor saxophonist in Pharaoh Sanders and a second drummer in Ali, who agreed this time. Although the sextet recorded the raw and powerful Meditations in November of 1965, the album proved the last straw for Tyner and Jones. Of the original quartet, only bassist Jimmy Garrison would remain.
“I felt if I was going to go any further musically, I would have to leave the group,” Tyner told author Ashley Kahn in his book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, “and when John hired a second drummer, it became a physical necessity. I couldn’t hear myself.”
Apparently Jones’ departure was also fueled by the addition of Ali. Jones told Kahn that it made him feel superfluous.
The apotheosis of Ali’s work with Trane can be heard on a pair of studio recordings, Stellar Regions and Interstellar Space, made within a week of each other in February 1967 (but unreleased until the 1990s). On the former, Ali displays both a refinement and an iron-willed restraint that ratchets up the tension within the quartet. On the latter, he engages Coltrane in a series of duets and proves that Trane had certainly found a like-minded soul with whom to planet-hop.
In April of that year, the drummer accompanied Coltrane on one of his last concerts (documented on The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording). In July, the genre-shaping saxophonist was dead. Ali continued to play with Alice Coltrane on classic recordings such as Universal Consciousness and A Monastic Trio, and also opened a club called Ali’s Alley in Soho, which became an important hub of the New York free-jazz loft scene.
The drummer remained dedicated to the avant-garde, recording with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer in the group Phalanx, and interpreting the music of Coltrane and Ayler alongside bassist William Parker in a group called Prima Materia. He also helmed his own groups, including the Rashied Ali Quintet, which earlier this year released Live in Europe. Captured onstage in Tampere, Finland, the band plays in both avant and straightahead settings, its leader refusing to conform to anyone’s concept of what – or how – he should play.
To hear an interview with Rashied Ali, conducted on August 5, a week before his passing, go to: http://rashiedali.bluemusicgroup.com