Ever since the free jazz breakthroughs of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in 1959, a strong dichotomy has existed between commercial dance music and progressive jazz. Last night at d.c. space, the Rashied Ali quintet did its part. Ali's musicians imcorporated an electric, funky backbeat without compromising the freedom of complexity of their jazz.
Ali once helped push jazz to its furthest limits -- as Coltrane's drummer during the last two years of that saxophonist's life. Last night's set began with a furious duet between Ali and Washington's own Yahya, a fervent capable Coltrane disciple. Yahya was soon joined by Byard Lancaster on alto sax, and they unleashed wave after crashing wave of dissonant blowing.
But this wild wailing soon resolved into a funky dance beat anchored by electric guitarist Billy Patterson and Ali's son, Amin Ali, on fretless electric bass. Patterson and the two Alis kept shifting the tempos but never lost the buzzing accents and severe syncopation of funk. Lancaster and Yahya were alternately lyrical and harsh.
Last night's show began with a screening of "Mingus," a 1965 black-and-white documentary about the legendary jazz bassist. The film alternates between impressive live performances by Mingus and his combo and hyberbolic monologues on racism, sex, success and violence. At one point Mingus fires a rifle at his apartment wall. The undisciplined but often fascinating film makes the connection between Mingus' frustrations and his music.
The Rashied Ali Quintet returns to d.c. space tonight. "Mingus" will be shown there tonight and next Wednesday. Byard Lancaster leads a jazz workshop at the club next Tuesday.