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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Reissued and unreleased music by Rashied Ali (Part 1)

By Martin Schray

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



Colin Green said...

Martin, many thanks for this and introducing some thought-provoking ideas. Personally, I’d be wary of theories and drawing general conclusions about historic reissues in jazz, which serve many purposes and whose extras inevitably vary in quality and interest. I’m not sure there’s a single need they serve, though in some cases nostalgia and a yearning for more inspired past – that other country in which they do things differently -- can play a part. Admittedly, on occasions they don’t amount to much more than old wine in new bottles. Other times the material can give us a much fuller picture, as with some of the Mosaic and the Miles Davis Complete Columbia Recordings box sets you mention with their scrupulous and considered accompanying essays, and the current release.

For my part, when it comes to free jazz and improv, reissues and “lost” recordings can make available music that’s been difficult to obtain since the original release and in some cases has simply fallen between the cracks, for example: the albums released by Triple Point such as the Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor Duos from last year and a number on the NoBusiness label. Some provide a valuable reminder of how in many ways little has changed in the kinds of things that concern free jazz – its relationship to its past is quite different from, say, pop music. If I were to play the New Acoustic Swing Duo reissue I reviewed yesterday and said it was recorded last year, would you have any reason to think otherwise?

Disappointingly, the download version of this album does not include any of the additional material, only available on the vinyl release, which gives rise to a further set of issues I’ll leave for others to discuss.


For me, a big fan of the late great Rashied Ali, both his duo with another great, Frank Lowe, and the quintet album are crucial recordings. Btw, i strongly suggest Ali's quintet's and quartet recordings- also in need for a reissue, due to their prices on the vinyl market.

I must say that i bought both of them as soon as they came out and have to admit that the total price, including shipping to my country, was huge. So, it is quite dissappointing that the download version of the duo doesn't include none of the additional material.

A lot of people (especially living out of the States) just can't afford to buy the LP's. Considering the community based music of Ali's work i'd expect that the people involved in this reissue would want for this to reach out to as many as possible. For such a great moment in 20th century's free thinking music this is a big mistake.

Martin Schray said...

Thanks for the kinds words, Colin. I’m also skeptical about general conclusions but I thought Reynolds’s idea is interesting and - at least at first glance (or on the surface) - quite persuading. But the deeper you go into it, the more you find that there are too many exceptions to the rule (still, it's an enjoyable read). I’m also rather grateful if stuff is made available for more or less affordable prices (in this case I’ve looked for this album for quite some time now). And you are right: It’s surprising how little has changed as to improv during all these years. Since you’ve mentioned NoBusiness: They’re going to release an album by DUX Orchestra (from the early 1990s) with the young Mats Gustafsson. It sounds as if it was recorded in 1970. Reynolds misses innovation in today’s music and partly blames it on the fact that our focus is too much on the past. For my part, I prefer any kind of music as long as it’s excellent, no matter if there’s a retro part in it - even if this sounds like a truism.
Fotis, the review of the Quintet recording will follow tomorrow.

MJG said...

Thank you for an interesting review of what I think is one of thee releases of the year, so far. Oddly, I now miss the LP as originally programmed, as much as I enjoy the outtakes, so may well purchase the download as well.

I'm interested to read tomorrow's review of what I think is a really interesting release if not wholly successful on all levels.

I agree with Fotis that the pricing of these will restrict the listenership but I like to think that the price point reflects the work entailed and a respectful payment to Ali's estate.

Magnus said...

"Duo Exchange" was one of the very first Free jazz lps i bought, i loved the artwork. And also the music.