Reissues of successful and/or seminal recordings and albums with previously unreleased material from important artists have been en vogue for quite some time. Just think of the box sets that Columbia has released of the most important Miles Davis records, Bob Dylan's attempt to curate his work with his Bootleg Series, John Coltrane's Both Directions At Once, Eric Dolphy's Musical Prophet and the endless unreleased Sun Ra albums that have been brought to the public on Record Store Days. In order to celebrate its 80th anniversary, the Blue Note label plans 24 reissues ranging from Chet Bakers’s Chet Baker Sings (1954) to John Scofield & Pat Metheny’s I Can See Your House From Here (1993). History obviously sells.
In his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (Faber & Faber, 2012) Simon Reynolds has suggested that our fixation with the past has to do with the need to extend the lost l’age d’or of the music we like, which is why we want to revive it. Reynolds refers his assertions to pop music, but there is an intersection with jazz as well. According to him, retromania can go so far that rather second-rate recordings from this period are retrospectively overrated. Repetitions from that time and a particular kind of music (in our case this would be the free jazz of the late 1960s and early 1970s) are based on a deep devotion to a certain sound that is no longer made and cannot be compared to anything else. This devotion applies both to the record labels and to the fans. Reynolds goes even further and claims that - for the latter in particular - it’s a refuge from the musical (and thus social) soullessness and the uniformity of consumer society. The intention of retromaniacs is to dig up principles that characterised earlier jazz styles, which have almost disappeared in the meantime in order to establish them as the basis for future developments. This actually sounds positive, but Reynolds sees retromania (and reissues belong to this field) rather critically, to him it means seclusion, which includes the prevention of innovation, because the focus of the music (in our case even free jazz) released today is increasingly on the past.
In the following two days, these theses are the basis for the review of two albums by drummer Rashied Ali which have recently been (re)released. Survival Records, a rather small record label that he founded in 1973 and operated until his death in 2009, has been relaunched with these two LPs this year, a hard-to-find classic and a never-before-heard 1967 live recording. Ali kept an archive of recordings and live performances, which have been carefully catalogued and remastered since his death by a team that includes Ali’s widow Patricia, mastering engineer Joe Lizzi, drummer George Schuller, and historical researcher Ben Young.
Rashied Ali / Frank Lowe - Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions (Survival Records, 2020) *****
Rashied Ali's fame stems mainly from his collaboration with John Coltrane. In the last phase before the jazz icon’s death he replaced Elvin Jones on drums. He appears on Meditations (together with Jones) and on some tracks of Cosmic Music, but most of all he accompanies Trane on Interstellar Space, a saxophone-drum duo recording, which was recorded in 1967 and released seven years later. Duos played by just a saxophonist and a drummer were rare at the time the album was recorded and hardly ever before featured on an entire LP. The exception to the rule is Willem Breuker’s and Han Bennink’s New Acoustic Swing Duo, which was also recorded in 1967 (read Colin’s insightful review here), but there is no evidence whether Ali or Frank Lowe were aware of this album.
In the end, Duo Exchange, Ali’s session with Lowe, was released even before Interstellar Space and is therefore often referred to as a twin album. It was the first release of Ali’s Survival Records in 1973 (Lowe was the label’s co-owner). Lowe was a lesser-known player at that time, Duo Exchange was his first album. Yet, you can hear immediately what a potent and promising force on the saxophone he was. This new version of Duo Exchange provides the complete sessions for the music, which means the complete original album plus alternative tracks.
Lowe is obviously influenced by Coltrane, the first piece on his second LP Black Beings is called “In Trane’s Name“. The first track here starts with a sax head, which almost qualifies as a James Brown funk riff before he throws in catchy melodic phrases alternating with harsh, piercing roars, which are sometimes so crass that they remind me of a dying animal or a grinding machine. Lowe works with overblown notes to the extreme, as well as with agonizing overtones. Nevertheless, his lines are melodic, they can be bittersweet, just to be honed by torn squeals. A perfect example of this is his solo in the last part of “Duo Exchange Part I (Movement 1)“. This way he brings to mind Coltrane’s “sheets of sound”, in long, exhaustive runs he explores every possibility of a musical idea. In contrast to Coltrane his sound is less spiritual, he seems to reach for pure notes, reflecting the bleakness of early 1970s New York, something not unusual at that time (e.g. listen to David Murray and David S. Ware on William Hooker’s … Is Eternal Life from 1975). “Movement I“ is book-ended by the same motif the two started off with, another reference to Interstellar Space, on which Coltrane used a similar order for his pieces. “Duo Exchange Part II (Movement 1II)“ is dominated by Lowe and Ali dueling like two acrobats in a Beijing opera. It’s fascinating to listen to Ali countering Lowe’s penetrating, seismic, manic tones. He is there with Lowe with every fiber of his body, he shatters the rhythms around him especially with his snare rolls, propelling the saxophone to even greater extremes. The second LP expands the original with interesting outtake versions. Exploring this material, other qualities of the musicians become obvious - like Lowe’s mild-mannered, vibrato-laden tone in the middle of “Movement I”. He delivers exquisite ballad playing on the subtle “Movement V,” with Ali gloomily accompanying him - it’s almost a refuge in the turmoil the music displays in general.
Duo Exchange is mastered from original tapes for the first time and expanded with nearly an hour’s music from the session, which was never heard before. For a decent copy of the original LP you might pay up to $300. The fact that Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore put it in his personal top ten list in 1996 also contributed to the album’s reputation as one of the most revered free jazz LPs, which makes the original so expensive. Therefore, it’s a real gift that it’s now available for an affordable price. For fans it’s a view into the session's work-in- progress, a process is revealed, how it finally came to the final album version. Even the conversations are enlightening. Once Ali tries to tell Lowe where he wants to go with him: “We gonna stretch,” he 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.” Lowe does that and you can see where the instruction leads the two. For listeners today it’s an insightful view, like a making-of of a masterpiece.
Duo Exchange is available as a two-LP set or as a digital download. You can listen to it here:
You can also get it at http://www.downtownmusicgallery.com