Rashied Ali is a survivor. Best known for replacing Elvin Jones as John Coltrane's drummer of choice in the mid-sixties, Ali has sustained himself as a working, thriving musician right through to the present day. Since his stint with Trane, Ali has founded a label, Survival Records, and a club, Ali's Alley; led countless groups in styles from funk to free; and mentored many young musicians (including John Coltrane's son, Ravi) while constantly refining his remarkable technique.
Ali performs in a duo with saxophonist Sonny Fortune at Sweet Rhythm in April. He recently sat down with All About Jazz New York in his home studio to discuss his current projects, the initial development of his 'multi-directional' rhythms, and his many illustrious musical associations.
AAJ: What can a listener expect from a Rashied Ali / Sonny Fortune duet performance?
RA: Well, what they can expect is to see two cats playing their hearts out. You know, because we just get up there, and we don't hold back anything. And we just do it from the way we were taught to do it by the masters; we just go right after the music.
Sometimes it takes us ten minutes; sometimes it takes us an hour to get it over with. We can play one song for an hour almost before we feel like we've exhausted every means of trying to get to what we were getting to in the music- take it to another level.
The repertoire could be whatever tune we play. It's not really a repertoire; we know so much music. We've been playing together ever since we started playing music back in the fifties or something, and we know so much music. And we were listening to all the great players like Coltrane, who was the cat who raised me in the music, and Sonny as well. And we listened to records with Bird, Clifford Brown- the history of the music, we know about that.
That makes us want to do more with the music. We try to play the music unadulterated ... no watered down stuff; it's just purely as on-the-money as we can. So there's no pretense in it. It's all sheer- well, I wouldn't say sheer brute strength, or that kind of a thing. It's that as well as beautiful melodic lines.
So we could play a standard; we could play Tin Pan Alley tunes; we could play originals. We do that; we go through all of them. We play Irving Berlin's shit; we play Cole Porter's shit; we play Charlie Parker's shit; we play Sonny Fortune's stuff; we play Rashied Ali's stuff. And we treat it all the same way. Say we play a standard like 'Love for Sale' or 'But Not for Me;' we try to exhaust the tune. It's like all of a sudden gravity don't work no more, you know what I mean?
You just go into a thing until it completely becomes like nothing. Everything just starts working together; that's when it's right. You can take any tune and do that. It doesn't have to be an original tune you write; it can be any tune. If it's music, you can do that with it; you can get free.
I mean being free, still playing 'But Not for Me,' but just open and loose. Being a drummer, you can understand what I'm saying, just to be able to play uninhibited, just to do whatever you feel like you want to do, and it's all right in there with what's happening. And that's how I feel about what we're doing musically.
AAJ: You've returned to the duet format throughout your career.
RA: I've dubbed myself 'The Duet Drummer.' I just remember even before Coltrane or any of that, I've always played with just a saxophonist or a pianist, whoever was available. I love playing with rhythm sections; I do. But it was really more open playing just with another instrument- a drummer, whatever. And I've been doing that all my life just about.
And when I did Interstellar Space with Coltrane, that really put it on the map, but if you go back and listen to some of my records before Trane - with Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Albert Ayler, Cal Massey, just a lot of different people ' you would hear me playing duets with Marion on some cuts, duets with Alan Shorter on some cuts, or duets with Archie Shepp. In fact, Archie Shepp and I, we played duets for almost six months before I went with Coltrane.
That concept came actually from listening to Trane because I first heard Trane play duets with Philly Joe Jones back in the fifties, and then I heard him play with Elvin Jones all the time, just duets. The whole band would split, and [leave] just the drummer and the saxophone. So that kind of got me up on that really.
So by the time I got to play duets with Trane, I was definitely ready for it. And since, I think I have more duo records than any drummer out. That's been one of my fortes, although I love playing with a rhythm section.
AAJ: How did the idea for Interstellar Space come about?
RA: I didn't have a clue what was happening. John told me that we were going to be going in to the studio, and I said, 'Cool.' And I went in there, and I was setting up, and I didn't see Jimmy, I didn't see Alice; I didn't see nobody else. And I was like, 'Where's everybody else?' and he said, 'It's just going to be you and me.' And I went, 'Oh!'
So everything was completely spontaneous except for at times I would ask him to give me some kind of clue as to what was happening, you know like, 'Is this going to be slow like a ballad?' or, 'Is this going to be in a certain time like 3/4 or 4/4? Is it going to be fast? Is it going to be slow?' Because you know, he would just ring the bells, pick up his horn and start playing.
And I'd been playing with him not that long anyways, and I'm like, 'What the fuck?' And you know I would get in there, and I would play, and he would go, 'How do you like that?' and I would say, 'Well, I wasn't quite prepared for it.' And he'd say, 'Well, you want to do it again?' and I'd say, 'Yeah, let's do it again.'
There's probably some other takes of that stuff because we did a few things twice, but [John] didn't really like to do that. But he saw I was in such agony that he would do that for me; that's the kind of cat he was.
And so, that record came about like that. Meditations was like that too, actually. That's why I always wanted a chance to do [Interstellar Space] again at some point, but it's pretty hard to do it without [John], you know?
But I did Meditations again; I recorded that again [with Prima Materia, Ali's group featuring saxophonists Louie Belogenis and Allan Chase]. That turned out ok. Still, I wasn't ready for the original Meditations, but I like the original Meditations better than mine.
AAJ: So, you had never heard the music on Interstellar Space before you recorded it?
RA: No; first time meeting it, first time playing it, and a lot of times it was a first take thing, and then I never heard it again until like twenty-five or thirty years later when they put it out.
AAJ: Did you ever play live duets with Trane?
RA: Well, no, but in the songs sometimes everybody would lay out and just John and I would play for a little bit, and then the rest of the band would come back in. And then on some tunes like 'Ogunde' and some other tunes, the whole band was playing, and then they would all just lay out, and then John and I would go and solo and play, and then the whole band would come back in to close it. So it was that kind of duo thing I did with him before.
But, like I was saying, I was pretty much versed into duos because that was one of my fortes, and it still is very much. I really do dig playing with a duo because I have a lot of freedom, and when I get with a good cat who really knows what's happening up there with the changes and everything, it works out really good.
AAJ: You were one of the first drummers to break away from timekeeping in jazz. How did you come up with your free style of playing?
RA: I came up with playing the way I play by listening to the top drummers of the world like Max Roach, Art Blakey. I say those two cats first because I listened to them a lot as a kid, but they wasn't really my main influences. My main influences was right in my family. Charlie Rice and his brother Bernard was really my main influences because they were really hell of a drummers; they were my second cousins, my father's first cousins.
But I listened to 'Philly' Joe Jones, and although he was playing straight ahead without the avant-garde groove - like Andrew [Cyrille], and Milford [Graves], and Sunny [Murray], and myself ' there were segments in his playing that he broke time up, and that interested me in his playing. Because he would go sometimes like five or six bars just breaking up time before he would go back to his time thing, and I was like, 'Damn, what would happen if you could just extend that?'
So I heard 'Philly' Joe Jones breaking up the time like that, and then I got into listening to Elvin Jones with Coltrane and, wow... I heard 'Philly' Joe Jones with Coltrane first with Miles Davis's band, and there would be times when 'Philly' Joe Jones and Coltrane would just take off ' the rest of the band would just cool out; Miles would go somewhere ' and those cats would just play for like a half-hour, forty-five minutes.
Then I heard John play with Elvin Jones in that same kind of situation, you know. So I was pretty much mesmerized by the sound of the drums and the saxophone, by looking at that. And I think that's where I started trying to find something else to do instead of just trying to play time. Because I was a Max Roach freak, and I love that period in my life because Max Roach turned me on to melodies and how to play the drums in a melodic sense and [how to have] a feel for the structure of the music you're playing and the tune and knowing the tunes and all that. I came up with that, so I had that kind of under my belt.
But when I started hearing these cats play all this free shit in between phrases, that sort of prompted me. Then when I heard Elvin Jones with Trane, I was like, 'Wow, man; I got to get my shit together or find another instrument to play' because it was that kind of a serious thing.
And I just went in to 'shed, and Sunny Murray, who was also in Philadelphia, we was all just trying to play open and free. He split to New York, and he met up with Cecil Taylor. I'm still in Philadelphia, and Sunny comes to New York and fucks people up with this free shit he was playing. Cecil got him and pretty soon I said, 'It's time for me to leave Philly.'
Trane actually told me to leave Philly, and I left Philly and I came to New York and I started playing with people like Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and I met people like Beaver Harris and Andrew Cyrille and Milford Graves, and there was a whole different kind of a music out here at that point: Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Archie- they called us the avant-garde 'New Wave' players, you know what I mean?
And we were actually trying to play a different kind of rhythm, and a lot of the drummers started homing in on each other and trying to steal licks from each other, and we just sort of stayed in here with it, and a few of us are still here. And I think it meant a lot because I hear a lot of players playing this type of avant-garde music.