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Al Ashley

Al Ashley was born and raised in Tuskegee, Alabama, the home of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) and the birthplace of the Tuskegee Airmen. In the 1940's, the Tuskegee Institute drew African-American intellectual, artistic, and entertainment giants to the small town, making it a cultural oasis for African-Americans.
In 1978, he began to build a collection of the commemorative coins and stamps that pay tribute to African-Americans throughout U.S. history. As a child, Mr. Ashley had the fortune to meet many of the individuals in this elite group, including: the poet Langston Hughes, jazz composer Duke Ellington, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, surgeon and pioneer in blood transfusion Dr. Charles Drew, and one of the best jazz singers of all time - Billie Holiday, as well as "The Wizard" Dr. George Washington Carver.

Al Ashley is an emeritus staff member of Stanford University and serves as consultant for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

For listeners who picked up on the somewhat elusive guitarist Rick Stone's recent release, Samba de Novembro (Jazzand, '04), and liked what they heard, here's an opportunity to catch Stone in a completely different context.
Drummer Al Ashley's These Are Them , originally released in '03 but only now seeing broader release, finds Stone and fellow bandmates organist Oliver Von Essen and saxophonist David Liebman working their way through a set of seven originals that's completely committed, and as hard-hitting a straightahead session as you're likely to hear this year.

With the obvious exception of Liebman, none of the players in this ensemble have much of a recorded legacy. Operating under the radar, but with three decades of work that has seen him perform with artists including Milt Jackson, Miroslav Vitous and Randy and Michael Brecker, Ashley is an in-the-pocket drummer who seems more content to work in support rather than aggressively assert his personality. But that shouldn't imply that Ashley is anything less than a richly intuitive player with a firm and supple sense of swing that pervades the entire set, from the straightahead "Blue Note," which pays obvious homage to the famed label's classic '60s recordings, to the more idiosyncratic samba of the title track. Both are Ashley compositions, as is "Fats Write," which, with its complex head and changes that recall the modality of some of John Scofield's early writing on Rough House (Enja, '78), demonstrates Ashley's debt to Elvin Jones.

Stone, whose Samba de Novembro revealed a style combining the economy of Jim Hall with the soul of Wes Montgomery, a touch of Pat Metheny's lyricism and a deeper, darker-hued tone that brought to mind a sparer Pat Martino, plays with more intensity on Ashley's session. His solos on "Fats Write" and his own "Relative Minority," a hard-edged bop tune where his ability to play through changes is nothing short of remarkable, are particularly inventive and focused.

Von Essen is another player who manages to build solos with a clear sense of construction. On his own "Perfect Day," which ambles along at a relaxed pace with just a touch of soul in the mix, and "The Other Time," a more modern waltz that demonstrates some of the creativity of Larry Young but with more finesse, Von Essen shows himself to be a sensitive accompanist and evocative soloist.

Liebman, as always, brings a strong expressionist sensibility to whatever context he finds himself in. He's capable of rich lyricism, as his soprano work on "The Other Time" attests, or more fiery tenor excursions, as on "Blue Note" and his own "Look What We Do To Ourselves," which closes the album on a powerful and ardent note. It's good to see Liebman, best known for his soprano work, bringing out the tenor more often these days.

These Are Them is a long overdue dbut from Ashley, proof positive that there is a host of world-class players out there operating underneath the radar who deserve broader exposure.

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