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.