RIP Rashied Ali, Coltrane's Free-Jazz Rhythmic Conspirator

Difficult Listening HourSo according to Rashied Ali’s website, the legendary free-jazz drummer is dead. He was 74. There are no details regarding the cause just yet, but a French-language site seems to date Ali’s death as occurring on Wednesday, July 12. (Either that, or the 12th is when they learned about it.) His passing will probably only rate a footnote-at most-in this, our star-studded Summer Of Death, but you know what? Ali was a titan. And at least one album that features his skittering, complex drumming will prove to be immortal: John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. You can listen to “Venus,” from that record, on the YouTubes. The Amazon mp3 download is here. (And why not shell out for quality?)

The whole album plays that way: just Coltrane on sax (plus bells/chimes) and Ali on drums, dancing across a bevy of time signatures and rhythms, turning up the heat to way past boiling and then bringing things down to a meditative simmer. It was so on some next shit-so unlike Coltrane’s classic quartet-that Impulse! records sat on the album for seven years. I remember how, when I was a teenager, the clerk at a jazz record store in Portland looked at me kinda cock-eyed when I brought the CD reissue up to the register, as though maybe I didn’t know what I was getting into. But nobody who’s never heard Ali before really knows what he or she is getting into. Which is a good thing. Surprises like that are beyond welcome in life.

I saw Ali in concert only once while living in New York-which I guess makes me something of a moron, since he was active and gigging around in his later years, both with his own quintet, as well as with various other groups. The show I did see was a monster: Ali in a trio with bassist Bill Laswell and Japanese guitarist/vocalist/noise-freak Keiji Haino. They were called Purple Trap, and they were loud. It was black metal, noise, angular funk and free jazz all rolled into one. They freaked everyone out in the best possible way. Their one record on John Zorn’s Tzadik label doesn’t quite do the group justice, but it’s good to have around as a measure of Ali’s versatility. Also, the title is cool: Decided – Already The Motionless Heart Of Tranquility, Tangling The Prayer Called “i”.


Others will have their favorites. Apparently, Thurston Moore is partial to Duo Exchange with Frank Lowe. The Generation Bass blog is offering a download of Ali’s first quintet recording, long out of print. I’m not familiar with those records, but in the last couple months, I had been digging one of Ali’s final outings, a duo thing with bassist Henry Grimes, titled Going To the Ritual. RIP.

Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.