Henry Grimes and Rashied Ali: Spirits Aloft

Two giants of free jazz come together for the last time in a live performance for the ages.

Henry Grimes and Rashied Ali

Spirits Aloft

Label: Porter
US Release Date: 2010-09-21

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less

Alt-rock heroes the Foo Fighters deliver a three-hour blast of rock power that defies modern norms.

It's a Saturday night in Sacramento and the downtown area around the swank new Golden 1 Center is buzzing as if people are waiting for a spaceship to appear because the alt-rock heroes known as the Foo Fighters are in town. Dave Grohl and his band of merry mates have carried the torch for 20th-century rock 'n' roll here in the next millennium like few others, consistently cranking out one great guitar-driven album after another while building a cross-generational appeal that enables them to keep selling out arenas across America.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.