Graded on a Curve: Rashied Ali, First Time Out: Live at Slugs’ 1967 and Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions

The farther we travel forth in time, the more the belief is encouraged that 20th century music history is set in stone. Upon chiseled tablets, inquisitive minds can ascertain events and achievements that unspooled tidily like fallen lines of dominos leading to the dawn of the 21st and right up to our current moment. But two new releases featuring drummer Rashied Ali, one in duo with saxophonist Frank Lowe, take the idea of a settled music history and explode it to sweet kablooey: First Time Out: Live at Slugs’ 1967 and Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions are out now, each on double vinyl, through Survival Records.

Indeed, music history is far from codified as the progressions that define it were far from neat. One of the niftier byproducts of vinyl’s resurgence (perhaps a better term is physical product’s resurgence, as the phenomenon includes an upsurge in cassettes, multi-format box sets with books, and yes, the against the odds endurance of the compact disc) is the increased spotlight material tangibility has shed upon uncovered works by complete unknowns and of course, entities with varying heights of profile.

The latter is the case with First Time Out: Live at Slugs’ 1967, which offers nearly 92 minutes of live performance by Rashied Ali’s Quintet that would’ve been lost except for the discovery of two 7-inch tape reels in the drummer’s private recording library. In the tersely informative notes for the release, Ben Young and George Schuller, who produced the set along with Patricia Ali, and Joe Lizzi, who mastered the recording, date the shows to May of 1967, just a few months after Ali was captured in duo with John Coltrane for Interstellar Space, though that session wouldn’t be issued until 1974.

If Ali was known in 1967, it was likely due to his role in Coltrane’s band, which he joined in ’65, initially flanking and then replacing Elvin Jones. Ali also played on Archie Shepp’s terrific On This Night from ’65 and was a member of Marion Brown’s quartet for two swell ESP-Disk albums recorded in ’65-’66. Ali’s releases as a leader didn’t begin surfacing until the ’70s, with this new, early vantage point a major facet in First Time Out’s allure.

The band is a mixture of established names and more obscure figures. Next to Ali, the highest profile player is pianist Stanley Cowell. He played with Ali on Marion Brown’s ESP sets, as did First Time Out’s bassist Reggie Johnson, though not at the same time (the prolific Johnson is on The Marion Brown Quartet, while Cowell is on the follow-up Why Not?).

Trumpeter Dewey Johnson (no relation to Reggie, I don’t think) is an important but undersung name in free jazz, as he played in the large band for Coltrane’s historic Ascension recording and was part of the October Revolution in Jazz, with his participation on Barrage by the Paul Bley Quintet a direct extension of that involvement. The biggest surprise here is saxophonist Ramon Morris, who later recorded in a soul-jazz context for the Groove Merchant label.

Here, Morris gets pretty deep into post-Coltrane search mode, which is appropriate for this band and the locale. Slugs’ (initially Slugs’ Saloon) was a club in Manhattan’s East Village, a key spot for the then thriving NYC avant-garde jazz scene. Coleman played there, as did Ayler and Sun Ra. Young mentions the likelihood that Ali assembled the band quickly to fill a last-minute opening in the club’s schedule, and listening to the four side-long tracks, each over 22 minutes long, that observation seems exactly right.

This and the roughness of the audio means that First Time Out shouldn’t be anybody’s introduction to the work of Rashied Ali, though that’s not to undercut the specialness of the set overall. A term used in the notes is under-rehearsed, which is to say that this wasn’t a working band (assembled in a hurry, again), but as First Time Out isn’t a post-bop scenario, it doesn’t matter as much as you might think.

Instead, it opens up a doorway into the sort of day-to-day activity that transpired in between the epochal events and cornerstone recordings which form the history of the avant-garde jazz movement. Bands were formed for gigs and ideas were shared as possibilities were explored. First Time Out delivers an extended immersion into this sort of “everyday” environment, and the occasional roughness (and general non-pro quality) of the recording, which under normal circumstances is far from preferable, formulates a verité quality that as the four sides progress evinces a particular appeal.

Make no mistake, smoother audio would still be ideal, as would a complete take of “Study for As-Salaam Alikum” (which abruptly ends just as an Ali drum solo gets going), but the inspired nature of the interaction does shine through. First Time Out offers an extended series of snapshots of everyday jazz activity, but there is nothing humdrum about it.

In fact, as it plays, the consistency of the emotional investment led me to think of Valerie Wilmer’s outstanding jazz book As Serious as Your Life, which was first published in 1977 (imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered that the 2018 edition of that book by Serpent’s Tail press features a cover photo by Wilmer of none other than Rashied Ali).

And the rawness of the audio only intensifies the fact that, in contrast to the then moderate (and declining) commercial plateaus of the ’60s post-bop biz (including the polite applause garnered in the more typical jazz clubs of the period), this was music made because the players deemed it an essential path of discovery. With this said, don’t get the idea that this is a feature film-length dive into wildly blown skronk and clatter, as side two’s “Ballade” explores the contemplative side of this group.

“Ballade” still fits securely into the avant-jazz mode of exploration, but it contrasts pretty sharply with the high intensity assault that’s heard on Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions. However, this edition of the record (with a new cover photo by none other than Val Wilmer), which was the first release on Ali’s Survival label (initially a joint venture between he and Lowe) and by extension a foundational document in free-jazz’s transition to self-reliance in the ’70s “loft era,” offers more than what’s ever been heard before from this session, with this expansion considerably broadening the record’s reach.

The original edition of Duo Exchange was released a year prior to Interstellar Space, and it’s important to stress how crucial this Ali-Lowe collab was to the proliferation of the instrumental duo lineup in jazz. It comes after Ali and Lowe’s roles in Alice Coltrane’s band of ’69-’71, and as the notes to this edition illuminate, the band of saxophonist Frank Wright as guests during a late 1972 performance at Artist House in NYC. Other than in Ali’s memory of the earlier session with John Coltrane (and the Impulse execs who were then sitting on the tapes), there was basically no precedent for a horn-drum duo in jazz.

And so, Duo Exchange is a total groundbreaker, but for more reasons than one, as the raw lung fury of Lowe points forward to saxophonist Charles Gayle (he was on the scene in the late ’60s but went unrecorded until decades later, another instance of jazz history documented through oral reportage); Ali played with him on the 1991 masterpiece Touchin’ on Trane. That was a live trio session with bassist William Parker, who’s debut on record came on Frank Lowe’s Black Beings, issued in 1973 by ESP-Disk.

Black Beings, like Duo Exchange, was later reissued with additional material. Once a wild tandem sprint (not a title fight) of high energy, Complete Sessions transforms it into an even more enriching experience. Up above I stated the Ali’s quintet session here shouldn’t serve as an introduction to his work, but upon consideration there are insights to be gleaned by starting the journey with the ’65 Slugs’ recording. Do you want to understand what it’s like to be free? Spend some time with First Time Out and then proceed directly to Duo Exchange. You’ll receive some major clues.

First Time Out: Live at Slugs’ 1967

Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions

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