Time has revealed drummer Rashied Ali as one of the key figures during a seminal era of jazz, the period in the mid-to-late 1960s when modal jazz began its evolution toward “free.” Ali was presented — some might say strapped — with what seemed like the impossible task of replacing Elvin Jones in John Coltrane’s quintet. Jones and Tony Williams, with the Miles Davis Quintet, were by far the most important post bebop drummers in jazz — arguably, they are the two most important drummers in jazz history — and it may have seemed that Ali had stepped into shoes that were too big for him. Such wasn’t the case: Ali’s hiring was a crucial final step Trane needed to take to move away from horizontal rhythm, the trap of moving linearly from Point A to Point B.
With Rashied Ali, the music moved up and down instead of sideways, a transition that represented the most radical and important change in jazz since the introduction of modal playing a decade or so earlier. But, as happened with Pharaoh Sanders, another notable Coltrane alumnus, Ali gravitated toward a more traditional playing approached as time passed. At the Vision Festival finds him exploring middle-period John Coltrane as well as some Thelonious Monk. James Hurt is an aggressive pianist with a lyrical streak (think McCoy Tyner), tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy is a powerhouse with intelligence, and bassist Omer Avital plays with a highly developed sense of what his fellow group members require for support.
The leader never upstages his younger cohorts, but he clearly shapes the music from behind the drum kit. His drumming here calls to mind that of Joe Chambers, similarly able to color his band’s music with a few judiciously applied phrases. “Ask Me Now” is a quiet masterpiece, able to sit alongside the very best versions of the tune. Ali’s former employer is visited on “Impressions.” It is a truly strange time warp, a Coltrane late iteration band’s drummer playing a version of a tune made famous by an earlier incarnation of that band in a style that is even older than Trane’s original version. Yet it still sounds modern (which says a lot for Coltrane, when you consider it). “Universe” is an extended modal workout, with Hurt tearing out of the starting gate. When Tardy makes his entrance, he brings the heat down a little in order to rebuild it. It’s worth noting how vital Ali’s kicks are to helping the tenor player up the ante; by the end of his solo, Tardy is digging deep. Hurt hits an ostinato figure over which drums and bass solo together, the band playing as one. At the Vision Festival is a joyous and heartfelt album played by one of the music’s true keepers of the flame and three very worthy acolytes.