Trumpeter Ralph Alessi possesses an oblique lyricism, offering melodies that don’t travel quite where you expect them to. A first call collaborator with the likes of Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, and Don Byron, Alessi is a decorated bandleader as well with ten albums to his name. His most recent one—Imaginary Friends (ECM)—features his long-running ensemble This Against That, currently a quintet featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber.
This Friday, February 28, Alessi convenes This Against That on The Jazz Gallery stage for two sets. We spoke with Alessi on the phone about the group, catching up with him as he walked back to his hotel after a long day of teaching at the conservatory in Siena, Italy.
Ralph Alessi: Sorry, I’m just a little out of breath!
The Jazz Gallery: That’s ok—thanks for letting us drop in! I’d like to start with your teaching here in Siena. Do you find that your students here are hip to the same music as young jazz musicians in the states?
Ralph Alessi: I’d say that they’re aware of the same things that typical students in the states are into. Pretty similar in that for both groups I am pointing them in the direction of older players and recordings, often times focusing on conceptual things that are not as common with the younger players of today. I find that the Siena students are very open, very respectful, so it’s quite a nice experience for me here.
TJG: Sounds great. Next week, you’re bringing your quintet This Against That to the Gallery, so I’ve been checking out your latest record, Imaginary Friends (ECM). One thing that’s struck me is your interest in linear or narrative-driven structures with different spaces for improvisation. What draws you to that line of thinking?
RA: When I start conceptualizing a piece, one of the important decisions is whether I want differing episodes of improvisation. Sometimes that’s built into the composition, but sometimes it’s the players making choices to offer contrasts in how to shape different moments. I like leaving things up to the players and not doing too much directing, and so I like working with players who bring a kind of compositional sensibility to the improvisations.
TJG: What are the elements of that compositional sensibility?
RA: I love how players can hear the music as it’s happening, have an awareness of where it came from and have a sense for where to take it.
TJG: How does surprise or unpredictability factor into that quality of being able to decide what happens next?
RA: For sure—I want that feeling of mystery to exist throughout the music-making. We all want to be surprised, whether we say it or not. It’s what fuels the music. The last thing I want to do is play music where people are just going through the motions. We’re all trying to provoke each other and keep the music flowing and alive.
TJG: I like that idea of provocation, and it’s something I hear in your dynamic with Ravi Coltrane. What do you feel are the contrasts in your and Ravi’s playing that lead to that sense of provocation?
RA: I find that in reviews and what not, a lot of people mention how Ravi and I play together. I love playing with Ravi, but when I listen back to things we’ve done, I don’t hear that dynamic in the way that others do. But I trust it, because it’s mentioned so often.
In terms of trying to provoke each other, I don’t know if there’s any real thought behind it. I think we’re just playing, and we know each other’s sound so well. Maybe that’s it, in terms of that sense of contrast—we know each other’s sounds so well, that we can blend them in a certain way. I think it’s akin to having a conversation with someone and having that be a dance. We’re blending together, and also juxtaposing each other. But I think that’s just the dance of playing music with other people.
TJG: It could be that elements of your and Ravi’s playing feel natural and intuitive you, while they feel unique and vital to a different listener’s ears.
RA: Yeah… I think I’ll double down on what I said about sound. Sound and color are such important elements of music, and when players are prioritizing that, thinking about how sounds are blended, that might be what listeners like yourself are responding to when they hear us play together.
TJG: Speaking of blending, there’s this one moment on the album’s title track that really exemplifies that sense of blend. You and Ravi center on this same pitch, and then add these lines that bloom out of it. Was that a happy accident of improvisation, or was it written into the fabric of the composition?
RA: That’s another thing that several people—whether writers or fellow musicians—have made a note of. That is literally the first written material for us in that section of the piece. The idea is that we improvise together, and the music builds, and we hit that note together and becomes the beginning of a melodic phrase. It’s definitely a compositional idea, but I really like how for a lot of people, it sounds improvised. In so many ways, that’s what you want—for the improvisation to sound like written material and the written material to sound improvised.
The nice thing about that take is that we had playing the piece on the road before the session, we had played about nine or ten times. That performance of the piece on the record was in some ways the first time it was played in the way I was hearing it. We were all breathing together.
TJG: I really like the idea of improvising toward a fix material, rather than the more common practice of improvising away from one. What do you like about setting up that improvisational method?
RA: It’s been done many times, even though it may not be the norm. That particular piece was just a sketchy thing that was sitting on my computer for a long time. It wasn’t until I had the courage to bring it do a gig with these guys (given that it didn’t seem to be done) that I realized that it could be played as a piece. I think it took on an idiosyncratic shape, even if it wasn’t necessarily what I was hearing when I was working on the bits and pieces of it. That’s the way it works when writing for improvisers. You’re not sure what you have until you start playing.
I remember the first time we played it at the old Cornelia Street Café. The opening section felt so… I don’t even think we got to the second section because what was going on felt so good. We just played on it for fifteen, twenty minutes. What everyone was doing with that little moment was so beautiful. If composition is getting from point A to point B, then it can play out any number of ways in terms of the sequencing of events.
TJG: Another striking element in that piece, and elsewhere on the album, is Andy Milne’s prepared piano. Is that something that he’s brought to the music himself, or did you write with that sound in mind?
RA: Years ago, Andy started to develop that in his music and eventually brought that dynamic to our music. I loved it, especially how it contextualized what was going on compositionally. When I got asked to do this record for ECM, I had this band in mind and could really hear Andy’s contributions to the music, which ended up being immense on the record.
TJG: I feel it fits the music in a really nice way because of how it matches your own way of playing with timbral variety. How have you developed that timbral variety in your playing?
RA: I’m more mindful of how I create sound than I used to be. It’s something that I’m very drawn to with different players. As I’ve played more and more, and as I’ve taught more and more, it’s become one of those things that I’m constantly thinking about. I find it’s really common for people to stuck in this Western classical idea of what are appropriate sounds. In the jazz tradition, a lot of the sounds that come out of it are not the sounds you learn in school. I find those other sounds to be really expressive and an essential part of the music.
I really try to push myself, as I hear players on the trumpet who are very, very good at producing a variety of expressive sounds. I aspire to that.
TJG: In terms of those sounds, I’m struck by the concordances between the sounds of early jazz—like Duke Ellington’s early brass sounds—and the sounds of Western avant-garde/experimental music.
RA: It’s funny you mention that, because that comes out a lot in my teaching. I like to talk about this profound link between free improvisers (for lack of a better term) and the early 20th century jazz players. They were so active in terms of using different mutes, and different means of achieving expressive sounds, like extended techniques and all of that.
It took me a while to realize that, because when I got into jazz, I was mostly drawn to jazz from 1940 on. It wasn’t until I was a student at CalArts and studied with James Newton who among other things introduced us to the music of late ‘20s Ellington. I loved how they played—it was so foreign to me. At the same time, I was drawn to the improvisers of the 1960s, whether in New York or Europe, and it was only later when I realized that link you were talking about. Someone like Lester Bowie had all of that and MORE in his playing!
TJG: Following up with this talk about education, I was wondering if we could talk about some of the bandleaders that you’ve played with over the years and something you’ve learned from them on the bandstand.
How about we start with Fred Hersch.
RA: Just the idea of improvising spontaneously. Fred is not one of those players who’s going to play clichés at all. He is definitely a masterful improviser of the moment. And obviously his command of navigating harmonic territory is unparalleled.
TJG: What about Steve Coleman?
RA: First and foremost, Steve is a master musician. I’m struck by how there’s nothing Steve can’t do. He can talk about these esoteric ideas, but from a nuts and bolts standpoint, he’s a musician on the highest level. And of course his command of rhythm as a improviser and composer has always been very, very striking to me.
TJG: Uri Caine.
RA: Uri as a leader is about as good as it gets, in addition to being a phenomenal pianist. Uri’s demeanor is very significant in the music-making, and that’s something I learned a lot from working with him. As Henry Threadgill said, music is made in a magical atmosphere—you have to get the vibrations right. Uri is very responsible for keeping things cool, and that’s the type of environment that I like to be in as a musician. I try to take those ideas into the classroom as well.
TJG: Let’s do one more—Don Byron.
RA: Ah, Don! Don is a passionate musician as well as a wonderful composer, one of my favorite composers bar none. The energy he brings to music and his love of music is so palpable and so fun to be around. I loved our time playing together.
Ralph Alessi & This Against That play The Jazz Gallery on Friday, February 28, 2020. The group features Mr. Alessi on trumpet, Ravi Coltrane on saxophones, Andy Milne on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Mark Ferber on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($15 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($25 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.