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Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists

By Published: July 7, 2010
AAJ: There are several things that are really intriguing about this group. One gets the impression that, after a point in the early '70s in France, the American musicians weren't quite as popular as they once were, owing to difficulties with the unions and so forth. This group remained extremely popular in France and throughout Europe for the whole decade, much more so than other bands. Also, you listen back to the recordings, and there's this generous and theatrical rapport with the audience that's so different from anything else that was going on. It was so warm—what it must have been like to experience the band is just really special.

MA: For me it was a musical voyage and we had no idea how much acceptance and good fortune we would encounter. We had played alongside the masters at all of the European festivals—we were starting the festivals, North Sea and Groeningen, Nice [France], and it's really hard to understand but we were just put into the mix. Other cats that were playing the music couldn't even get to the gigs we were getting, and we were playing every festival that the bebop cats were on, too. We toured with [bassist-composer] Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
's group during the Newport in Europe thing. We worked with [tenor saxophonist] Hans Dulfer and [drummer] Han Bennink
Han Bennink
Han Bennink
in Holland, in Germany we got involved with [reedman] Peter Brotzmann
Peter Brotzmann
Peter Brotzmann
and his group, and we were the pick of the musicians.

This is how we got involved with everybody—the musicians put on a lot of festivals, and they turned us on to the good agents. During those days, we didn't just go to one city, before we knew it we'd hit every town and every little festival in a country—they tried to keep us! We were put on a lot of festivals that were just starting out, and now those are the major jazz festivals in Europe. All the people in Europe that were into the music wanted us, and we were pioneers carrying this music across the continent.

AAJ: It's interesting because this music isn't "easy music" on any level—aesthetically, spiritually, politically or whatever else. It's challenging. It's a lot to deal with, but listening back to the records they might start off really heavy, but they bring you in with a groove that's extraordinarily enveloping. It's hard to put one's finger on, but it's so different from the later music of Coltrane, or Albert Ayler, and joyous in a way that's separate from other bands. It was a heavy thing, but that force would bring you along with it.

MA: There was this young Indian lady and I knew her husband, and he brought her along to one of the gigs we did in Paris. She was very skeptical because she didn't understand that music, had heard it before and wasn't accepting of it. When he brought her to the gig, she came up afterward crying and was just trying to explain how she hadn't trusted that she would like it, not knowing that she would was shocking to her, and she gave her heart to the music that day. Her husband came up to me later and said that they went back and made a baby after that! You put that to the fact that this person came to the gig and opened herself up, it's beautiful. Frank used to always talk about the spiritual aspect of the music, and I loved playing with everyone I played with, but the fact that we came so close to making people understand the music was really special—not just wanting to turn away from it as too overpowering or something.

People are often not spiritually open, and whether or not they are believers, they still have to understand that the music comes from the spirit. It's a spiritual thing that connects people, and you don't have to put a name on it, but it is a feeling that makes a sort of connection. You don't have to name it—in fact, it's the names that people put on things that create all this separation between people. But something that can't be separated, can't be named, and is more of a feeling—this is what I had with the people I played with.

We used to work some with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

, and we connected from that spiritual aspect, even though the things they were doing were totally different. When we came together—sometimes we all played together—it was a connection. It's a lot to do with me because I try to find a way to enter what's happening, rather than dominate it, overpower or direct it. It can manifest itself into being one thing musically, and that's what I try to do and why I was accepted by a lot of players.

With the Celestrial Communication Orchestra, there were a lot of individual players and I had to find my way to each one of them. Sometimes there would be thirty cats on the bandstand, and I'd find my way to each one of them so I can connect with them, as well as to the whole ensemble when it's necessary. When Alan was conducting, whoever was soloing I had to make a connection with them, to the point that whatever was happening around us was just something added on. That way you wouldn't be so overcome because it was such a huge ensemble.

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