Rashied Ali

New York Ain't So Bad: Ali Plays the Blues

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From the first in a series of obscure reissues by the Knitting Factory label, this Rashied Ali-led session from 1975 is exactly what it says it is, a blues date featuring the unusual, deep soul vocals of Royal Blue, who comes off styling his blues from the T-Bone Walker school of Texas blues crossed with the voiced passion of a Big Joe Turner and the clarity of speech that comes from Joe Williams with Count Basie. The Rashied Ali Quintet is the backing band, which featured Charles Eubanks on piano (and he is a truly amazing blues pianist), James Vass on alto sax and flute, Benny Wilson on bass, Marvin Blackman on tenor and flute, and, of course, Ali on drums. The tunes are all smoldering late-night and medium-slow blues. This is odd considering a two-horn front line, but it makes perfect sense in this setting. Ali, not content to play the straight fours the blues require, shuffles everything, syncopating each instrumental passage by triple and even quadrupling time so as to appear in synch with the rest of the band. Royal Blue's semi-sung, semi-shouted, low-key vocals are replied to, line for line, by Eubanks, whose capacity to underscore his words and add emphasis -- like a choir responding to a preacher -- is astonishing. These lyrics are fraught with feeling anyway, and given Eubanks' painterly washes through and under them, they become the heart itself emoting without fear. The horn section solos and punches Ali's beat through with modal skittering and ribbons of melodic improvisation, tampering with space and time as Ali looks the other way, knowing that he and Wilson have the time covered. And this is where it gets wild and weird. In these seemingly "straight" blues tunes, a jazz quintet is being itself, stretching the tunes, offering overtones as possibilities, and moving it on over into another space entirely, while firmly remaining a band that backs a blues singer. Take one listen to "Moontipping," one of six Blue originals, or "Everyday I Have the Blues" by B.B. King and T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues." On each of the two covers, the tune is turned inside out by Ali's band, creating a jazz standard without changing the basic melodic structure. Hats off to Knitting Factory for reissuing this all but lost gem, which, in a late modern context, reveals the true roots of jazz.

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