The Solos & Duos Concert Series at UMASS Amherst closed on November 20 with an unforgettable performance by Rashied Ali on drums and Sonny Fortune on alto sax.
Both of these musicians played so freshly and intensely with each other that their long term musical relationship made sense. Never in my experience with the music, have I heard a duo produce such a huge, deeply three-dimensional and persistent sound.
Fortune grunted, stomped to count off the opening of "Just One of Those Things." Surprising, because the presentation of the two musicians was seemingly conservative in relation to what could have been expected. Fortune blew out beautifully distinct ostinatos and arpeggios that did not have a wavering note in them. The certainty with which he handled his horn extended the nature of the sound to meet the breadth of the musical content that translated to sheer joy. Fortune would sail off into variations of a central theme that harnessed incredible details to make the transitions from one section to another. In those transitions, he hinted at the main tune so as to keep the improvisation whole. Fortune would dig in, and repeat notes over and over again from the bottom to the top of the mid-range stream of his horn to keep the improvisation tight. He would often grip onto a flurry of notes & would spiral around just one of them.
Fortune’s body would move the same way the notes moved: he would dip and with his knees bent, he would bend into the music and then come up straight only to keep extending the music so far that he would raise himself onto his toes. He moved from one side of the stage to the other. Fortune was always at ease with his instrument; a struggle with it never ensued. His tendency to create tonal clusters as he would meet familiar tune notes was breathtaking. He only took a visible breath once - at which point he separated his horn from his mouth. Relentless trilling, valving, speaking with his instrument rendered every piece memorable.
Ali’s presence was stunning. The largesse of the man matched the largeness of his drumset. To think that this drummer played in Coltrane’s last group was mind-boggling. It was also rather sobering to hear Ali perform in a context to which history was paid homage rather than in a context where he himself made history.
Ali manifested fortitude beyond the music: the muscles in his forearms flexed with every stroke of his exaggeratedly long drumsticks. He played his drumset centrally to the snare and hi-hat. When it was time to bridge from one set of rhythmic statements to another set, he made a quick round circling to the left on his multiple toms. Occasionally, he would lick his index finger and thumb on either hand while in the midst of playing. The purpose of this gesture was not determined.
Ali played often completely in sync with Fortune, note for note. Ali would click the drums as a natural subset of the horn; then the roles of the instruments would reverse. Ali’s gorgeous hands knew where to take the drumsticks auotmatically-- no thought seemed to be involved, only the impact of the listening drove his touch. He would move the sticks out wide then come back tight to the center. The loudness level of the playing was fairly steady in keeping with the sound level of the horn; only once did Ali noticeably inrcrease the level to move from one groove to another. Ali never separated himself from the horn in voice; he knew when to stay close to the phrasing and when to move away and stretch out.
When Ali soloed, his grandeur was exposed. Nothing could take the listeners’ eyes and ears from the solid unfication he bore with his instrument. When he would pause, the silence of that pause became sound, integrated into the next round he would take on the set, the next downstrokes he would make on the hi-hat, the next switch in rhythm he would establish. His playing did become more rhythm keeping than pulsation because the fluidity of his playing was so highly interlaced with the phrasings and tunes that came from Fortune’s horn.
The pair ended the concert with the Resolution and Pursuance sections of Coltrane’s LOVE SUPREME. It has no longer become a question that this piece of Coltrane’s cannot be touched because of its sacrosanct nature. In fact, it is that very fact that makes its do-able. The spirit within the music creates the boundary for the music to reach. It is within the musicians to convert the energy of that spirit as means to invite the audience in. That is what happened. Ali and Fortune invited the audience in---to their aliveness, their hearts, and the love that emanates from doing what they do.