One of the percussion explorers to first develop a fantastic grasp of multi-directional polytonal percussion
After a brief excursion out in the U.S. Army, Ali played with local R&B groups in his hometown, Philadelphia. He then moved into the local jazz groups, playing with Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, and Don Patterson.
Early in the 1960s, New York's bigger jazz underground drew Ali in. He shortly became something of a fixture in the avant-garde area, playing along with Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, and Bill Dixon. His first big record was On This Night with Shepp.
Around this time, he started sitting in with John Coltrane at various clubs. In November of 1965, the moment came: Trane decided to complement the godlike Elvin Jones with another drummer simultaneously. This was the start of something; while Coltrane ventured to the edges of the atmosphere harmonically, Ali's set nudged around the melodies and became in itself a polytonal instrument, propelling the chaos forward. The only recording I know of with this dual-drummer lineup is Meditations.
As Coltrane went further and further out, Elvin Jones felt he had exhausted himself in this context; it was time to move on. This left Ali at the reins of percussion for an unfortunately short period. During the last days of Coltrane, the band recorded Live at the Village Vanguard Again, Expression, and Stellar Regions.
The last great statement of Coltrane was Interstellar Space: only Coltrane and Ali playing triumphant free jazz. The percussion here is hard to ignore; it doesn't proceed in beats, it comes in sheets as Coltrane does, it comes in a moving, changing blast of noise that pushes the songs along. There is only one lapse into anything resembling traditional swing drumming, as Ali hints at this in Saturn; if this isn't jazz, call it a great musical achievement.
Of course, this wasn't the end of Ali's career; just a shining point. He went to Europe, where jazz is appreciated, and studied with Philly Joe Jones. In the early 1970's, he was again an important player in the New York scene; he started his own label, Survival Records, the catalog of which has since been reprinted on the Knitting Factory Classics imprint.
For the past 30 years, Ali has pushed the boundaries of his playing: he has his own Rashied Ali Quartet which travels to all ends of jazz.