As a child, I idolized Alfie Turcotte. Selected by the Montreal Canadians in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, Turcotte had a relatively undistinguished professional hockey career. Nonetheless for the handful of years that Turcotte played for the Baltimore Skipjacks, a short-lived and perpetually losing minor league franchise from Maryland, I worshipped him. And while I hung on Turcotte’s every in-game pass, his every breakaway deke-out goal, his every body check, it was Turcotte’s pre-game rituals that truly fascinated me. The game was one thing, but I truly believed that the secret to Turcotte’s (modest) success lay in his behind-the-scenes routine. And so my father and I would arrive early at Skipjacks’ games—me donning my #9 Turcotte jersey—just so I could watch (and later ape) my idol’s every pre-game move in the hope of glimpsing some deep dark secret to the spell that he cast over me. From the stretching routine to the workman-like taping of his sticks to his pre-game shooting drills, every action for me was like snapping into place another piece of the Turcotte puzzle.
I was reminded of my Turcotte pre-game infatuation as I listened to Spirits Aloft, the latest release from legendary free jazz bassist Henry Grimes and his uber-talented drumming associate, the late Rashied Ali. Spirits Aloft was recorded live at the Gordon Theater in Camden, NJ, on February 7, 2009, just six months prior to Ali’s death. And while the album documents a live musical performance in front of an audience (and one of Ali’s last), it feels more like a glimpse into the “pre-game” rituals—the thought processes and approach behind the music—of two avant-garde jazz gods in their later years. That may sound like a criticism, but actually it’s quite the opposite. In fact, in music and in jazz in particular, there’s no better way to get to the essence of a musician than to hear him or her practice; in rehearsal you get a true glimpse of where a musician is headed, what challenges him or her, and what his or her limitations are. (In addition, Spirits Aloft, is bookmarked by Grimes reciting poetry, which may provide further insight into his artistic approach.)
To be fair, Spirits Aloft is more than just a rehearsal recording. It is, however, almost completely improvised and, as a result, feels very rough around the edges. Grimes and Ali are interacting with one another in real time and constantly exploring new ideas. Sometimes the result is a series of jarring scrapes, squawks, and slams, like in “Rapid Transit.” Other times Grimes and Ali combine to create ambient pitter-patter that seems almost techno- or dub-like, as with “Oceans of the Clouds.” Still, in other moments, as with “Preordained,” gorgeous harmony and blissfully swinging rhythm erupt without warning from a seemingly endless jittery blanket of chaos.
Spirits Aloft also shows that Grimes and Ali, both in their 70s at the time of this recording, hadn’t lost their chops or sense of adventure. In “Arcopanorama,” Grimes, who has played with everyone from Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Rollins to Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor, displays lightning-fast solo bass plucking and complex use of chords. And Ali, who was once the drummer of choice for John Coltrane, shines on “Larger Astronomical Time,” a solo drum piece filled with brutally difficult polyrhythms.
Spirits Aloft isn’t an album for the faint of heart. It is free jazz at its freest (as evidenced by Marc Medwin’s slightly obtuse, incredibly overwrought, but ultimately touching poetic liner notes and eulogy to Ali). If what you’re searching for is achingly beautiful melody and accessible arrangements (or arrangements at all), then you best look elsewhere. However, if what exhilarates you, what makes your heart skip a beat, what keeps you up at night, is one more glimpse into the wild imagination and “pre-game” rituals of two avant-garde jazz giants, then you may have just found a gold mine.