FROM JAZZ BANDS TO JAM BANDS

“So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet,
Music in some living form will accompany and sustain it
And give it expressive meaning.”
- Aaron Copland, composer

This quote was chiseled into the side of the building across the street from the venue where I saw the monumental show described below, and was the first thing I saw upon exiting.


Rashied Ali
Jam band: A newer word coined to describe an ideological framework and stylistic phenomenon originally heard in older music, specifically American jazz traditions of the 1950s and ‘60s. Fueled by social forces that inspired civil rights movements and cultural shifts, jazz music became intellectually challenging, unadulterated, and cathartic. Visionary players like John Coltrane began taking interpretative freedoms with harmony, melody, meter, and time. Seemingly formless and extended solos had purists irate and resentful, but a huge part of Coltrane’s legacy, and that of his peers--Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, Rashied Ali--is the lasting effect they had on improvisation and rhythmic and percussive relationships. Catch phrases like "free-form" and "avant garde" became applicable to an increasing number of musicians, a reference not so much to sound as to experimental style and a willingness to supplicate themselves to the music created. A friend recently reminded me of a quote in Relix by Bob Weir, which essentially said he believes that jazz bands are the original jam bands due to their similarities in approach. Then I read an assertion that the music of jam bands has become a “gateway genre” for a younger generation that has cycled back to jazz. Is it the case that musically and stylistically thinking, we’ve come full circle and that jam bands possess enough of the essence of jazz’s traditions and legacies to bring jazz back into commercial mainstream music? Recently, I had a chance to check these ideas out for myself when the Rashied Ali Quintet played Seattle’s new swanky dinner club, The Triple Door.

Rashied Ali replaced Elvin Jones as John Coltrane's main drummer for the last three years of Coltrane's life. When you read biographies about Ali and his drumming style, you often see words like "innovator, "transcending," and "revolutionize." He is responsible for refining the role of the drummer’s interaction within an ensemble by “trying to find something else to do instead of just play time.” He understood people kept the beat going in their heads whether he played or not, and so he began to play around the same way that Coltrane did, taking the listener to task. He played his drums in a melodic way while never acquiescing to the primal importance of the swing in jazz. Drummer Billy Martin agrees, “Not only was Rashied Ali an extremely powerful influence on my playing when listening to late Coltrane recordings in my youth, he recently blew my mind when I heard him in Europe with a small ensemble… He is a universal treasure.” And so it follows that the interplay between drummers and bassists became increasingly important when fleshing out a tune and giving it direction. In fact, many tunes in jazz music are written specifically for the bass, while other players vamp, playing around the roots.


Photo from reggieworkman.com
Bassist Reggie Workman also seems to bridge the old and new within the jazz world. In the way that Ali is referred to as an innovator, Workman is described as "technically gifted" and "brilliant." He plays across a spectrum of styles, has recorded with many of the original heavy hitters of the jazz scene, including John Coltrane, and has enjoyed a musical relationship with Rashied Ali for many years. His more recent compositions and recordings traverse tradition but also look to the future evolution of jazz. He has successfully incorporated Eastern influences and instruments not so common to the genre, such as electronics and harp, into both free and more straightforward jazz. Clearly he embraces the versatility of jazz and neither he nor Ali are afraid of pushing its limits while remaining true to their historical experiences; for them playing is the expression of their love of music.


Ravi Coltrane
The three remaining members of Ali's quintet, Ravi Coltrane (son of John and Alice), Jumaane Smith, and Andy Coe, are of a younger generation and are only beginning to make names for themselves. There was tremendous cross-generational significance with two legends playing with the son of one of their contemporaries, along with two talented young fellas who could conceivably be their grandchildren. Both Ali and Workman, along with continuous playing and recording, have parlayed their experience and expertise into educational roles for younger generations; indeed, the younger Coltrane was mentored extensively by Ali. Raised by his pianist mother after his dad died, Ravi had a musical upbringing, but did not get into jazz until his 20s. Being a saxophone player, comparisons with his father’s frenzied flights are inevitable, but he strives to make a niche for himself and no doubt, he will. Among others, he currently plays with Pharaoh Sanders, one of his father’s contemporaries.

Rounding out the quintet were trumpet player Jumaane Smith and guitarist Andy Coe, both of who graduated from Seattle’s Roosevelt High School’s acclaimed jazz program in the late 1990s. Since graduating and leaving Seattle for New York City, Smith has been studying with Wynton Marsalis at Julliard and with Rashied Ali while working on his trumpet’s voice and writing compositions. Andy Coe lives in Seattle and plays with numerous groups across the Pacific Northwest. He honed his skills in the University of North Texas’ jazz program before moving to New York City and meeting up with Ali. He and his brother David formed Coe Brothers Presents and worked very hard to make this show happen. This kind of enthusiasm is what many older musicians find thrilling about the evolution of the scene today, and Ali’s openness and excited support was clear. As he explained to Modern Drummer magazine, “I’m rooting for the young musicians, I’m rooting for the future, because I think this music has a future and it’s about finding it.”


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