RASHIED ALI'S SURVIVAL RECORDS
(photo courtesy of Internet Cafe)
The label is black, with a Moorish-Arabic design around the edges; I love to watch that label spin on my turntable. Survival, drummer Rashied Ali's label, is now being returned to us on CD, with the logo top center. After a year abroad following the death of John Coltrane, Ali began his own New York club, Ali's Alley, and documenting this scene on tape. Ali remembers, "I asked each musician performing at Ali's Alley if they'd like to be recorded, and most said yes."
by Steve Koenig (February 2001)
Thirty years later, the drummer had "been talking to Michael [Dorf, Knitting Factory honcho] for years about the tapes that I have from Ali's Alley," Rashied explains. "I think it was just a matter of time, because when they started to do these things, dealing with a lot of independent young record companies, well Jim (Eigo), he was back in the day, he used to come to this club I had, Ali's Alley. He was hip to what we were doing musically, and the tapes that I was doing from the club. He asked what I had, and I had them all ready to be transferred. We had a deal that I could put out these records, and also put out more, and new stuff. It's leased to the company for ten years, Survival and Knitting Works working together."
Reissue producer Jim Eigo, now with Jazz Magnet, recalls "My history with this music goes back to the early 1970's; I was privileged to be present for the "Loft Jazz" scene in NYC - Ali's Alley, Studio Rivbea, Environ, Artists House, The Brook to name a few, where much of this music was created." When the opportunity to return the Survival catalog presented itself, Eigo "jumped at the chance to do it. Rashied was so gracious and accommodating, opening up his archive of music to me. Fortunately the tapes were well preserved and organized. Rashied had everything catalogued. I was amazed at how well the music held up, the immediacy and power had not diminished one bit. It was fresh and new again and I was happy to able to make this great music available in the digital age."
What's next? "I was luckily enough to get one record out by each band so each one is documented. I have just about everything we did because I recorded everything. I'm a well-documented musician, even though the people haven't heard it yet. I'm a tape recorder freak; from the very beginning of my career as a musician I had a tape recorder. Even back when I was a kid I had a Wollensak, but in those days it sounded like hi-fi. Remarkably, all the tapes are in pretty good shape. I'm talking about forty years, and I have all that stuff still. I want to release the session I did with Eddie Jefferson and Leon Thomas." I asked him, laughing, "What is it with you and singers?"
"I'm gonna tell you what it is with me and singers. I'm a singer myself. My mom was a gospel and jazz singer. I used to sing when I was a kid, all the way through high school, and I always liked singing, so there's that bonds between drums and voice that's always been my thing, so I love singing and I love singers. I did this thing with Jay Clayton, Irene Datcher, and Jeanne Lee; I had those three singers and the band consists of Hammiett Bluiett, Charles Eubanks on piano, Jamie Vass on alto, Bennie Wilson and myself and that's called Rashied Ali with voices; that's three great girl singers. All done live at Ali's Alley." Sitting in Survival Studios, I was treated to a sneak preview of what we have in store: "Rashied Ali with Voices" has the three sopranos creating intricate lines in "'Round About Midnight" and other songs which in jazz terms equal the intricacies of the three sopranos closing Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." Exquisite. Meanwhile, bask in the knowledge of Survival and know that we are richer because of it. Although the sound is plainly analog, the music is prestidigitation. Here's a play-by-play of the current catalog.
- Rashied Ali and Frank Lowe Duo Exchange Knit Classics KCR-3020. It starts with an almost r'n'b horn riff, with Ali responding free and rapid. Lowe peals to the sky, they trade free fours, full of energy and lust. It's melodic nonetheless. Lowe solos into the bittersweet, sharpened by a high squeal. Like a James Brown single, in parts one and two; this one fifteen minutes per side, and worth it.
- Rashied Ali Quartet Rashied Ali Quintet Knit Classics KCR-3021. Two tracks, solid in their own right, and historically interesting as the first recording of Blood Ulmer. Ali says, "I had met him and we played together at least a year before he got with Ornette Coleman. In fact, I called Ornette. This was the band I had right after the New Direction band, I really liked this band a lot. We were together for at least two to three years. We got a couple of other things, but wanted this one out because it was already on LP. On the CD they reversed the titles of the tracks. 'Address,' actually it's 'Adrees,' that's my son's name. When you listen to 'Adrees,' you're actually listening to 'Captain Black.' They promised in the next pressing they'd get it straight." These first issues, however, should have had stickers identifying the error.
The sound quality is as raw as the playing. About that, Ali told me regarding this and other unreleased recordings: "I had done one or two of them at the studio of Marzette Watts, an experimental recording engineer; we worked with a lot of feedback and things like that on a couple of the LP's, and I kind of liked it. I wasn't that crazy about it but it was different so we let it go. He used feedback up against the sound. He would record it really really high and then in the mix he would bring it back until it got this really high sounds, especially with guitar. It was distorted and all that was on purpose." The sound is indeed distorted, but you don't have to strain for the music; it's right up front with lots of air and space.
- Rashied Ali Quartet New Directions In Modern Music Knit Classics KCR-3022. "New Directions was one of my best quartets," Ali says. "That's the first group that I got together after Trane died, after I went to Europe and got that whole thing out of my system. Carlos Ward, Don Pullen, originally, something happened in the mix, and Don had some commitments so I called Fred Simmons. That band stayed together for about 3 years. He did a lot of work around New York and a lot of recordings. That stack of recording there (he points to a shelf full of tapes) is all that band, all recorded live, many at a Brooklyn place called the EAST. That was one of our better bands, but I had to let them go because it got to the point where were weren't working at all and everyone was such a good musician, and getting calls from other people."
Two extended works recorded live at the EAST Cultural Center in Brooklyn. "As-Salaam-Alikum" starts with a tasty solo drum intro, jumps into a head and goes modal but free. Pianist Simmons plays riveting rivers and progressions. "I've known him for years; we go back to the same hometown [Philadelphia]. He's a professor at Wesleyan," notes Ali. Ward takes it all out on alto and, on "Akela," flute. Add Stafford James on bass, somewhat under the mix. Except for the audio, this is as fresh as today.
- Rashied Ali Quartet and Quintet Moon Flight Knit Classics KCR-3023. Another solid effort, with "A Light," by alto James Vass, a fine example of what they do, with Rashied playing free and propulsive, yet delicate and intricate, using his whole kit. Charles Eubanks' piano, which impressed me so at Vision Festival 2000, provides a web by continuo and commentary; solid jazz by a coherent group who'd played together a few years.
- Joe Lee Wilson & Bond Street What Would It Be Without You Knit Classics KCR-3024. Joe Lee's voice stretches when it goes way out, it makes amazing arcs. He can "shout" in an exciting way that is not necessarily on standard pitch. Hear his vocal take on "Blue Train," where his "horn" alternates jazz singer-phrasing and horn phrasing on certain words. Another boss track is the bossa nova "Crucificado" by Dave Burrell. Wilson's arching moans beguile; you can feel some words emanate from his solar plexus and slam into yours. Rashied Ali plays conga with Wilson's band which includes bassist Ronnie Boykins, and Ryo Kawasaki adding great guitar flecks throughout.
"Joe Lee was another, unheralded, misunderstood, and just one of those guys who never got recognized in his time," Rashied tells me. "He had the experience and the knowledge and the influences; a total jazz singer. Joe Lee had all that; he still has all that. I still think he's one of the top jazz singers in the world, but he's still one of those secrets. One of those singers who really never got an even break. He also had a loft on Bond Street called Ladies' Fort. He did a lot of work there. He named it Ladies Fort because he was a ladies' man and all the ladies would come and hear him sing, because he had that kid of charisma about him. When he was in the United States, we hung out a lot, were were pretty much inseparable for a few years. I think he got a shot to do a Columbia record; I think it did come out as a very limited release."
- Rashied Ali Plays The Blues/ Royal Blue N.Y. Ain't So Bad Knit Classics KCR-3025. Clearly from the Texas blue tradition, Royal Blue's voice slurs like the horns do. He'll stretch out, yet soft, sweet, single notes are there too. "Moontipping" could seem like straight blues, but there's Jamie Vass' swirling alto clearly from improv, also Ali's polyrhythms and free hits, and Charles Eubanks piano comp which doesn't comp but plays unexpected notes everywhere. All songs are Royal Blue's save T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday" and B.B.'s "Everyday." Rashied called it Ali's Blues Band "to note that I was playing blues, so we had a title and subtitle. Royal Blue was an unbelievable, young blues singer who comes along once in every thirty years I guess. He came to New York, man, and was singing blues and only blues, and he was the only one of the younger cats who was singing from the heart. If he had lived he would have been one of the blues singer of the day, but he died the same way he lived. I've described his singing as cutting edge and he lived that life.
He had woman trouble; he couldn't seem to get it going on with the women he dealt with. He had a drinking problem. He was very eccentric, and he lived hard, instead of taking the easy way, all the time. He was always one foot in and one foot out of the street. And his music talked about it just like that. And he died that way. He got beaten to death with an iron pipe by his girlfriend's brother because of some domestic argument and he stepped in and they found him on the street. They left him on the street and he died right there on a New York street on Third Avenue. He was really articulate in his words, and if you listen to his songs, you can really hear where we was coming from. It was incredible; you don't have to know him, you can know him from his music, trying to find a place to live, how much he lived his woman, and his little new born kid."
- Rashied Ali - Le Roy Jenkins Duo Swift Are The Winds of Life Knit Classics KCR-3026. This is one of my favorites of the series. Coming back to it after many years, thanks to his more recent releases on CRI and Omnitone, the blues roots of his work, which before just seemed to me good "free improv." Ali, too, is at his best, skittering all over the kit in a very busy yet subtle way. Ali recalls, "It just happened. Le was working with the Revolutionary Ensemble and I was working with my band, and we never played together, and so we decided to get together. We came into the club when it was closed, I turned on the tape recorder and we just started playing. We put it down on tape not even thinking that it was gonna turn out the way that it turned out, and that was the first and the last time we played. It was great thing; it was in the winter time. For the pictures we went up to Central Park where it was freezing cold and Valerie Wilmer took the pictures for us. It was just a whim."
NOTE: The Survival catalog can be found at Knit Classics
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