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.
AAJ: Could you talk about your background in R&B?
RA: Well, that was the beginning of my whole drumming thing because that was the first kind of stuff I played as a drummer- rhythm-and-blues and playing backbeats and playing for blues singers: Dick Hart and the Heartaches; Big Maybelle, I played with her a little bit; I played with Muhammad Abibala [sp.?], [who] was kind of a Louis Jordan-type saxophonist, or an Arnett Cobb-type of saxophonist.
I played with a lot of those kinds of rhythm-and-blues groups around Philadelphia; Philadelphia was that kind of a place. In fact, I followed Coltrane in one of them bands because he also played with Abibala, I heard before me.
I mean I was sort of just right there trying to learn how to play and watching and just going through the same grooves like the cats ahead of me went through, just learning how to hold how to hold myself up with the rhythm-and-blues groove, and trying to practice how to play time and listening to Bird and listening to my cousins- they used to play. In fact, actually Bird played at my high-school dance, and my cousin, Bernard Rice, he played drums with Bird at the high-school dance because Bird used to come to Philly, and he wouldn't bring a band; he'd just come and just bring his horn, and he would get a band there; that's how that stuff was there.
So I seen bands like that at my high school; I seen Stan Kenton's band, he played at my high-school dance; Woody Herman's Third Herd with the Four Brothers: Brew Moore, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Allan Eager- they played at my high school dance too! Check that out, right?!
R&B was a hell of an introduction to the drums for me because you've got to use a lot of strength and shit... In the seventies I had a group called the Funky Freeboppers, and we was sort of integrating electric instruments with acoustic instruments. And we was doing a lot of funky things, singing and stuff like that with that band in the seventies actually. And I kept the Funky Freeboppers alive for a couple of years, two or three years; a lot of different guys came through the band.
And then I didn't get tired of the groove, but I wanted to get back into really playing what I felt. And I didn't really feel Funky Free-bop like I did playing open. And so we did that; we did a lot of funk shit, and I played as open as I could; I played as far out as I could take it. Then I said, 'Alright, that's it; let me go back to what it is I really love to do.' [The Funky Freeboppers have] never been recorded, but I do have tapes; one day you might get a chance to hear the Funky Freeboppers.
AAJ: With your group Prima Materia, you've recorded recreations of both Albert Ayler's Bells and John Coltrane's Meditations. Were these records an attempt to create a kind of avant-garde jazz repertory?
RA: It's not really the importance of the compositions as it is the importance of the composer. Those cats, man- Albert Ayler to me was a major, major, major force in the music; I don't care what you name it. He was just a very different saxophonist, and he was respected by great saxophone players like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and people like that.
And I got a chance to play with [Albert], and he was an incredible musician, and he played stuff sometimes that I couldn't even deal with. But after listening to him for awhile, I could hear where he was coming from.
Albert Ayler was a very creative musician, and everybody realized that, and the contribution that he made, it's too bad that's it's going unsung like it is. I mean nobody knows who Albert Ayler is. You can ask people who've listened to jazz forever, you ask them about Albert Ayler, and they go, 'Who?'
So, that's what's missing. And so, I did [Prima Materia's Bells] because I wanted people to hear Albert's music. Maybe that record would get them to go out and buy an Albert Ayler record, you know what I mean? That record doesn't get out that much anyway, but if they would hear that then they would go, 'Damn, I wonder what the original cat sounds like?'
So, we did that in remembrance of Albert, and we also did two records in remembrance of Coltrane. And that's what Prima Materia was about. We was going to do one for Eric Dolphy as well, but we haven't got to that one yet. But we do have one coming out which I call Configurations, which is Coltrane's music from his album Stellar Regions- 'Configurations' is one of the tunes on Stellar Regions. I finished that last year, and it should be coming out this year. We call that Configurations, and I've got two basses on there, Wilber Morris and Joe Gallant; Allan Chase is playing alto; Louie Belogenis is playing tenor, and Greg Murphy on piano.
AAJ: Could you talk about the history and future of Survival Studios/Records [Ali's personal studio and label]?
RA: Well, this is the studio here. And the label 'we've got some stuff coming out. Actually, Configurations is coming out on Survival as well as Cutting Corners, which is another CD that I did down here with a group that I played the Vision Festival with in 1999: Greg Tardy's playing tenor, James Hurt is the pianist, and Omer Avital's playing bass.
...I've never really recorded on my own, as a leader, with a major record company in the thirty, forty years that I've been working for some reason. With other bands I've played on major record companies, but as a leader, playing my own music and playing with my own band, I never did it with a major company. I don't know if that's because we never agreed on things- I had chances, but it didn't work out
So I developed Survival Records, and most of my stuff has been done on my own label. And I'm glad I did it now because it really works out better for me because I'm building up a catalog and the whole thing, and I've got two more records coming out around the spring, maybe in the summer they'll be coming out: Configurations and Cutting Corners, which I feel like is really good.
And this last one I did, No One In Particular [featuring Ravi Coltrane on tenor and Matthew Garrison, son of Ali's late associate Jimmy Garrison, on bass]... It was really cool because those kids ' well, they're not kids anymore; Ravi will be ... thirty-something years old; Matthew's in his early thirties.
But I knew them when they were inside their mothers! They didn't know me, but I knew them. And I used to see Alice, she used to make sessions with this boy in her, and then when they were born, they were little babies, and I seen them as little babies until I guess Ravi was about six or seven or eight when he moved out to California.
But Matthew, I watched him because he lived right around the corner with his mother, Roberta, and Jimmy. When he died, she stayed there I guess before she moved to Italy with him. He was like about eight or nine or ten, and she moved him to Italy, and I didn't see him no more until he came here to go to school at Berklee.
And then Ravi, I was kind of seeing him because I was making trips out to California ' my father's out there ' plus I was doing gigs with Alice sometimes, and that's how I met Ravi...
So, you know, the rest is history. I sort of got [Ravi] to come here to New York. He came here, and he stayed with us for a little while, and he got himself together. And then I met Matthew through some kid named Gene Shimosato who plays guitar ' he's a good guitarist. [Gene] was teaching, and he was going to Berklee at the same time Matt was going there. He came over, and Matt goes, 'Oh, that's Rashied Ali's house!' and boom, boom, boom... Then I got those cats together, man.
So I took them, and I had this band with Ravi and Matt and Gene and Greg [Murphy]. We went to Europe; we were together a couple of years. I made a few tapes, and I finally got this record out.
And it's a gas to play with those cats, being they're the sons of some great musicians that I respected a lot. And Matthew [laughs], Matthew is a motherfuckin' hell of a bassist, man! Whoo! He plays the shit out of that electric bass! ... I don't know if he ever wanted to play acoustic, but if he ever did, it wouldn't make no difference.
He's an incredible bassist, and Ravi is a very great young saxophonist with all the time in the world to develop ... You know, I did a lot of stuff with Ravi. We did some stuff with Tisziji Munoz [There should be a '~' mark over the 'n.'], and every time we get together we play. So, he's an incredible player.
AAJ: Are you currently composing music?
RA: Well, you know, I haven't really written anything in a long time because, for one thing, a lot of the stuff that I've already written hasn't really been played yet as far as I'm concerned.
But I sit at the piano sometimes, and I get ideas; and I did run across something that I might be doing on my next record. I wrote a couple of ballads. I don't know how I got with two of them; I must have been in kind of a melancholy mode because I am going through certain kinds of weird things in my life right now in my life. I'm having difficulties in certain things, and, thank God [knocks on wood], I'm healthy. I'm just going through different changes and stuff.
So I sat at the piano, and I did some stuff the other night, and I was smart enough to put a tape recorder on so I won't forget it. But then there's a few things I wrote back in the day that I want to record, and I think that's what I'm going to do on my next album. I think I'm going to write all the tunes...
AAJ: Do you listen to other styles of music?
RA: Yeah, man, I like all music. I'm a music freak. I like it all, man, and if I don't like it, it must be bad... You know, I like the cats that's really doing it, and the cats that's bullshitting, hey! [laughs]
AAJ: Are you a teacher?
RA:...There used to be a time back in Philly when I used to teach cats just basics, but actually, man, I teach from the bandstand. Cats come and hear me, and they see what I'm doing. When they do come to my house, I do stress out the fact that you need to try to extend your time. I say, 'If you're playing, you need to extend [time] over the whole set instead of trying to concentrate on beats. Concentrate on what you hear.'
That's how I get it, man. I can play a time, and then I can just take that time and turn it into nothing. The time will still be there, but you won't hear it; you can feel it. I can demonstrate that for you. I can do it right now... [Ali sits down at drums and demonstrates- What a treat!]
And that's what John called 'multi-directional rhythms. He named it; he told me, 'Rashied, what you're playing is multi-directional rhythms.' That's what he put on it, so I just left it there. I guess it means everything going on at once. He said, 'I can pick whatever I want to; I can play as slow as I want, or as fast as I want on the rhythm that you're playing.' And that was some heavy shit when he told me that...
That's the only reason I was [with Coltrane], man. I used to be playing gigs, and Coltrane used to be in the audience watching me. I was playing with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Chris Capers, George Coleman ' whoever it was I was playing sessions with. And I would look out sometimes in the audience, and Albert would go, [whispers] 'Hey man, Coltrane!' So he used to scope us out.
But that's not it either. I used to go to his gig and beg, and he'd let me sit in with him; I sat in with the quartet. They had this place, it used to be called the Half Note, it was on Hudson and Spring, and Trane used to play there- if he was off he'd play there for a month, two months, and I would go over there and sit down on the bandstand ... ask them to let me play every day. But I came in there one day when Elvin [Jones] wasn't there, and everybody wanted to play, and [John] said, 'Come on, man,' and that started it. After that, I was playing all the time. I was sitting in on Elvin's drums, and pretty soon I started working with Elvin, two drummers.
But from the beginning, I would just go over there and sit in and just play with the band. And other people would sit in too. I'd bring people like Pharaoh [Sanders]; we'd come together, and we'd both sit in with Trane. And then [John] started changing his band around.
[Playing in tandem with Elvin Jones] was an incredible experience, man; I'll never forget that. Although, it was kind of rough at first, but, whew, man, that was something. I learned a lot from it. That was great. Too bad it didn't last long, but it lasted long enough for me to understand what it was all about.
AAJ: It seems like there has been a resurgence of interest in avant-garde jazz in the past few years. Do you feel like people are starting to come around to your music?
RA: I really do... Trane left us, and that was a big blow to the avant-garde because he was the biggest name, and he had more clout to get it out there than anybody else... And when Trane actually left that music, and Miles Davis and Teo Macero and those cats got the music moved into a different direction with the fusion thing, that just sort of put the dampers on the avant-garde; that just sort of put it out. And I guess that's what prompted me to try to get a record label, get a club because we needed a place to play, we needed a place to record, and all that shit.
But I think now that the music is starting to resurface again. I mean, just like I said, you can't go but so far in it man; you've got to do something else. You just can't sit around and say, 'Ok, let's go to Louis Armstrong; let's play Louis Armstrong for awhile; let's play some Bird for awhile; let's play some Coltrane of the sixties for awhile or some Coltrane of the fifties for awhile.' After awhile, you've got to make a stand, man, and start playing yourself.
And that's what the avant-garde is; it's a very personal kind of a thing; it's stuff that you can do after you learn how to do everything else. You've got to first know where it's all coming from before you can take something- I always call the avant-garde taking absolutely nothing and turning it into something; in other words, just going for it, just start playing... You know, just start! Just do that, and keep turning it over and turning over until it starts making sense. That's the shit man; that's the stuff, man, to be able to play like that.
And I feel like the music is making that kind of a thing because I get with young kids from the New School, from Julliard, and I don't even want to name these kids, but when they come down here to my studio, they don't want to play no 'Scrapple from the Apple;' they want to play some different stuff. They don't just want to hear no time; they just want to play. I'll say, 'What do you want to play?' and they'll say, 'Let's just play! Let's just hit.'
And so I'm feeling like that's where the music is, and it's cool to hear young people wanting to play like that. That's not putting anything on anything because I stress the fact that, hey man, if you don't know how to play 'But Not for Me,' if you don't know how to play 'Cherokee,' or if you don't know how to play 'Giant Steps' ... then you can't play avant-garde because you've got to play that first. You've got to know where that shit's coming from before you can play this.
And that's what motivates me, man, is they learn that shit. I call anything I want to call, and they can play it, ... and if they don't know how to play it, they go learn it. And, hey, that's where the music is to me.