Rashied Ali and his quintet push against the grain on ‘First Time Out: Live at Slug’s 1967’
In her 1977 book, As Serious As Your Life: Black Music And The Free Jazz Revolution 1957-1977, journalist and photographer Val Wilmer gives a riveting and encompassing account of the avant garde jazz movement that was first introduced in the late 1950s and whose reverberations continue to influence and Inspire, inspire and influence musicians today.
With her colorful interviews and detailed profiles of free jazz giants like John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Albery Ayler and more, Wilmer’s book gives us a firsthand account of one of the great musical revolutions of the 20th century. Although the book covers the scene in cities like Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, as well as including some fantastic detailing of the avant garde scene in Chicago scene and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the heart of the book and Wilmer’s reporting is primarily centered around the New York scene. Describing Slug’s Saloon, a popular club in Manhattan that hosted many of the free jazz musicians, Wilmer says “the Lower East Side was the place where most of the people playing the new music were heard for the first time. A brick-walled bar with sawdust on the floor, it was as important to the new music as Birdland had been to Bebop.”
In the Spring of 1967, the drummer Rashied Ali would come to Slug’s to lead a quintet for two sets of intriguing and challenging music. These performances were captured on tape and have now been reissued as First Time Out: Live at Slug’s 1967.
Born in Philadelphia in 1935, Rashied Ali would make a name for himself as one of the most creative and versatile drummers in the history of jazz. Throughout his nearly five-decade-long career, he would play with a host of jazz luminaries, including John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Jackie McLean, Jaco Pastorius, Frank Lowe, Marion Brown, Gary Bartz, and many others. Although Rashied Ali was a prolific sideman playing in other musicians’ ensembles (he was still employed by John Coltrane when this set was recorded), First Time Out: Live At Slug’s 1967 would mark only the second time that Rashied Ali would lead his own group. A brilliant collection of musicians, the quintet features Reggie Johnson on bass. Stanley Cowell on piano, Ramon Morris on tenor saxophone, Dewey Johnson on trumpet, and Ali holding down the drum kit. Although the vinyl version of the reissue includes more extended sets of music, the digital version is divided into two long pieces/performances: “Ballade” and “Untitled Composition 1.”
The music that Ali’s young quintet plays here is abstract, yet rooted in the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic conventions of Bebop. The music ventures into “free” territory often but it retains the rhythmic pulse and sense of cohesion often found in the best Bebop. “Ballade” opens with a lovely, celebratory melody in which Johnson and Morris play beautifully elongated lines that snake in and around one another as Cowell. Johnson and Ali build the tension behind them. This opening melody is a bittersweet blues but as the ensemble continues to play together. They settle into an open-ended groove while Johnson takes a solo on trumpet. His playing here is gorgeous, lyrical, and searching like he’s reaching towards some higher ground. Reggie Johnson’s accompaniment on bass is melodic while reacting to, and dancing around the chords that Cowell plays. A little over six minutes into the piece, Ramon Morris enters the fold on tenor sax. His solo is restrained and mournful blues.
For “Untitled Composition 1” the band kicks up the tempo and intensity of their playing. The music is clearly rooted in bop, but the abstraction present in the solos and Ali’s open approach to rhythm reflects the influence that the avant-garde was having on bop-trained musicians. Here, Dewey Johnson’s playing on trumpet is powerful and forward-thinking. Pushing his instrument to its limits, Johnson blows out forceful, staccato phrases against Ali, Cowell, and Reggie Johnson’s driving rhythm. Johnson’s solo — like much of the music captured on First Time Out: Live at Slug’s 1967 — feels like he is trying to break through the confines of the old music and establish an entirely new approach right before our eyes