Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists
MA: I knew of him, but I didn't know him until I got to New York. I did several concerts with him, and I also worked with [alto saxophonist] Marion Brown. The cats that Rashied used to play with I started playing with, because he went with John and I was up for grabs. It was a blessing for me, you know! I did the Newport festival with Archie and Beaver and [bassist] Wilbur Ware, and it was really cool during those days in New York.
AAJ: One gets the impression that around 1968 the gigs in the States started drying up, and people like Noah and Frank had to relocate to Europe for work. What was your experience?
MA: We didn't go until 1969, and I'd say I was working regularly from 1966 up until that point when we went to France to work the Actuel festival. Frank was over with Sunny Murray already, and me and Noah and [pianist] Bobby Few went over there to join him. I did Music is the Healing Force of the Universe, with Albert Ayler (Impulse!, 1969), and Orgasm (Verve, 1958), with [trumpeter] Alan Shorter, before I left as well.
AAJ: And you and Rashied sort of split the duties on Orgasm, right?
MA: Yeah, we didwhen I came in, Rashied had done some tunes with Reggie Johnson on bass, Alan, and [tenor saxophonist] Gato Barbieri. I came in and did the last part of the session, which wound up being the first and sixth tracks, and we brought in Charlie Haden on bass.
AAJ: The listener really gets quite a view into how you and Rashied are different from that recording. It's an interesting way to program an album; there's a rumor that Rashied had a fight with the producer and that's why the album didn't get completed the first time.
MA: Yeah, well, it was also a difference about the time structure and Rashied probably didn't want to play the strict time that Alan had written. They kept doing takes and people got more involved with not liking how things were going down than trying to make the record. But whatever the case might have been, it fell in my hands and I took care of it!
AAJ: Well, it's really impressive how you tackled those time signatures. And when you played Alan's "Coral Rock" piece on the Archie Shepp record [Coral Rock (America, 1970)], again there was that really specific time playing with something else over and under it that's very fascinating.
MA: It has to come from your thoughtsAlan Shorter was a dynamic person, and he used to sing the parts to me while we were in the car on the way to the studio. I learned how to deal with his music because of that. There's a whole lot of rehearsing that people do, and there's another way of rehearsing where a person has particular music they want you to play, they can sing it to you. He'll make you understand and feel what he wants, rather than going to the studio and rehearsing for five or six hours. It's a way of acceptance of another person.
AAJ: Right, getting in with the personality of a player in order to understand the compositions.
MA: That way, you can get more strategic and delicate things than if you're just making a regular rehearsal. You might not pick up what he's doing otherwise.
AAJ: What about the Frank Wright Quartet and how things came together in Europe for you? It was such a wonderfully long run for a group that could work together in very special ways. It would be interesting to get an idea of how Europe was different at that time from the States, and what that experience was like for you.
MA: Well, I've written some things down about that that I'll read to you: In 1969, I went to Europe where I performed major festivals in Europe and was very well received, especially in Paris. In Paris, I recorded with Frank Wright, Noah Howard, and Bobby Few the One for John LP on BYG Actuel records. I began playing jazz clubs, concerts, universities, and other noted venues with the Frank Wright Quartet. From 1970-1972, the band (minus Noah Howard) traveled through France, Holland, Germany and back to New York. The gigs in Europe were definitely more happening, so in 1972 we returned to Europe. While living in Paris, bassist Alan Silva joined the band and shortly after the label Center of the World Productions was formed. We soon changed the name of the band to match the label; during that time, Silva had also formed the Celestrial Communications Orchestra, and I was the drummer of both groups.
We played all overwe were so well accepted and we were blessed to the point that we were able to work all around with Frank and Bobby. At the beginning we used different bass players sometimes, and even a trumpet player, as well as Arthur Jones on alto (it hurt me to my heart when we lost him). All the time that we lived in Paris, we were able to travel for sixteen years performing and recording in Europe and North Africa. It was during that time that we were still working under the name The Frank Wright Quartet. The Center of the World came in with the Rotterdam concert in '72. We figured that business-wise, we'd try to change the situation to more of a cooperative thing.
We just went from one place to the nextFrance, Holland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Demark, Luxembourg, Tunisia, Morocco, and England. We didn't just go to one city; we'd go back and forth to all the cities and towns, do the whole country, and during that time we were always working and playing. We were really into itliving in Paris, then Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Geneva, though we did decide to base ourselves in Paris eventually because going from one place to another was a bit too much. We were so well-received and we decided to do everything from Parisand I lived there until 1984 or '85, because it wasn't until 1986 that I returned to the States.