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Rashied Ali didn’t know the session was going to be just drums and saxophone until John Coltrane arrived at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and told him — no one else was coming. In subsequent years, according to Ben Ratliff’s 2007 book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, the drummer said he wished he’d known in advance so that he could’ve been better prepared. And yet, the resulting four-song epic, Interstellar Space, stands as a monument to the power of musical dialog when the participants are particularly dialed into one another.
Coltrane had brought Ali and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders aboard to bolster his classic quartet — pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones — which precipitated the departure of Tyner and Jones in 1966. As the replacement for Jones, whose thunder-to-shimmer dynamics and rapport with Trane had highlighted canonical releases such as A Love Supreme, Ali had his work cut out for him.
Trane’s confidence in Ali was warranted, as proven by their extraordinary interaction on Interstellar Space. Three of the pieces — “Mars,” “Venus” and “Jupiter” — begin with a quiet coruscation of bells, focusing listener’s attention before the eruption of drums and saxophone. From the jump, and appropriate to the planet named for the God of War, the pair create volcanic tableaux, Trane’s magmatic flow matched step for step by Ali’s speed-of-thought sticking. More meditative, and also befitting its Roman antecedent, “Venus” builds in intensity, its lovely melody ascending into more agitated expression before raveling once again into an image of beauty. And Coltrane and Ali churn and roil like planets aborning on “Jupiter” and “Saturn,” each containing moments of transcendent expression.
Recorded 10 months before Coltrane died, the album was shelved until 1974 and later released on CD with bonus tracks. It remains an exemplar of free-jazz drumming. — Bob Weinberg