Thursday, August 13, 2009
R.I.P. Rashied Ali and Les Paul
Wow, what a day. Two legendary musicians have died: guitarist/inventor Les Paul and jazz drummer Rashied Ali. I was shocked to first hear the news about Rashied via the Secret Society blog, only to read somewhere on Twitter a few minutes later that Les Paul had passed, too. Dark day, as blogger/critic Nate Chinen puts it.
Rashied Ali (1935-2009)
Mostly known for his groundbreaking work with John Coltrane, Rashied Ali is in the pantheon of jazz drummers. He grew up a few doors down from Coltrane and says he used to stand outside Coltrane's house to listen to him practice. On Coltrane's Meditations, Ali played alongside Elvin Jones, one of the two or three most important jazz drummers of all time. After that, Jones left Coltrane, leaving all drumming duties to Ali.
Ali continued playing until his death, often playing the freely improvised music he was famous for, but just as often playing in more conventional hard bop idioms. He was scheduled to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival just this past Sunday, but reports said his brother Muhammad subbed for him. Now we know why.
From a drummer's standpoint, I never studied Ali's playing too in-depth, but I did appreciate his undeniable power on John Coltrane's Interstellar Space (Ali's most famous recorded performance). I also remember thinking to myself a number of times in my drumming education something along the lines of "man, I should really get deeper into Rashied Ali." Hopefully I'll be checking that off the to-do list soon.
Watching and listening to Ali's playing today, I really realize what an incredible impact he's had on jazz and how truly incredible his propulsive playing is. The fact that he could play a 55-minute duo version of "Impressions" and continue to create new ideas the whole time is beyond impressive. Check out Howard Mandel's extensive 1990 interview with Ali here. NYTimes ArtsBeat has a proper Obit up here, and Doug Ramsey's Rifftides has a remembrance and an excellent video interview in which Ali discusses his relationship with Coltrane.
Les Paul (1915-2009)
Then there's Les Paul, who will be remembered as both a great guitarist and the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, which pretty much changed the course of music history. He led a long, long career doing everything from hosting TV shows to pioneering recording practices, playing jazz clubs and topping the pop charts.
Listening back to his early jazz recordings, it's startling the kind of technical facility Paul possessed. I guess my brain put him in the inventor box and assumed that must mean he didn't have much time to get pro chops on the guitar. But Les Paul was a musician first. He never set out to be a great inventor, but rather invented the electric guitar out of necessity. Hopefully he will be remembered as both an important inventor and a phenomenal guitarist.
It's interesting to note that Paul probably had about as big an impact on Rock and Roll as anyone, yet spent a huge portion of his life playing in jazz clubs. So, next time you feel like shaking your fist at Rock and Roll for killing jazz, think about how we're all interconnected: While Les Paul was tearing through some Ellington tune at Iridium, Ace Frehley was entertaining thousands with Paul's namesake guitar.
Nice Washington Post obit here, and a gem of a video.
The next AccuJazz playlist update will turn a spotlight on both Paul and Ali. The Guitar Jazz channel will feature a lot of Paul's early trio recordings, and the Avant-Garde Jazz channel will highlight three Coltrane/Ali collaborations: Interstellar Space, Stellar Regions, and Medidations. Watch the blog for an update on when this goes in to effect.