Every musician who worked steadily with John Coltrane in the Sixties achieved a certain kind of immortality. But drummer Rashied Ali earned a special distinction thanks to a February 1967 duo recording date with the legendary horn player, five months before Coltrane’s death. Released seven years later as Interstellar Space, the music from that session essentially launched an entire subgenre of fervent, spiritually attuned free jazz played by just a saxophonist and drummer.
Yet as a new series of reissues and archival releases shows, Interstellar Space is only part of the Rashied Ali story. Of the first two titles to be released physically and digitally as part of a relaunch of Survival — the label the late drummer ran on and off from the early Seventies through his death in 2009 — one is a companion piece of sorts to that magical Coltrane release. Recorded after Interstellar Space but released before it, in 1973, Duo Exchange features duets between Ali and tenor saxist Frank Lowe, a lesser-known player but a potent force on his instrument.
There’s a starkness and severity to Interstellar Space, but Duo Exchange feels looser and more conversational. In “Part I,” branching off from a compact theme, Lowe juggles catchy melodic phrases and harsh, piercing roars, frequently clearing out of the way for Ali to tumble gracefully across his kit. Though the drummer mostly avoids strict timekeeping, his precision snare work and hurtling ride-cymbal momentum hark back to bebop masters like Max Roach and Roy Haynes. Rough but vivid sonics add to the performance’s bracing appeal.
“Part II,” stretching to around 15 minutes, is equally strong. Like its predecessor, it’s a celebration of spontaneous musical flow in the absence of a traditional jazz rhythm section with piano and bass — a dialogue between two players rooted in a common tradition but not bound by its conventions. (These two tracks are only a fraction of what Ali and Lowe recorded together at the studio of fellow musician Marzette Watts: A limited-edition two-LP set, Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions, features a wealth of fascinating outtakes where the musicians can be heard chatting, rehearsing the pieces on the final album, and adding flute, bells, and voice to their sound palette.)
For Ali, the duo format became a way of life, a setting he would return to often with various saxophonists — “I’ve dubbed myself ‘The Duet Drummer,'” he said in 2003 as he chronicled his long history with the format. In studio chatter heard before the second part of Duo Exchange, you can hear him bringing Lowe onto his wavelength, welcoming the saxophonist into a shared mindset where the two players could start more or less from scratch and just see where they ended up.
“We gonna stretch,” the drummer says. “Play your saxophone on this one, man. Don’t worry about no time limit and shit; just play your saxophone on this tune, ’cause it’s gonna be, like, a mellow, relaxed kind of a beat; it ain’t gonna be too frantic and shit. Just play your saxophone, and then I’ll play, and that’ll be it.”
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