Music

Ralph Alessi: This Against That

David Morris

Ralph Alessi

This Against That

Label: RKM
US Release Date: 2003-06-10
Amazon
iTunes

There is an inevitable and regrettable moment in all reviews of contemporary jazz albums when both the reviewer and the reader are reminded that they are engaged in a rear guard action, that each of their roles are tasks in aid of holding off the inevitable. But as much as the moment itself is regrettable, the anticipation of it is loathsome, so let's get them both out of the way: there's very little on Ralph Alessi's This Against That that you can't hear being done better on recordings made 20 years ago. There's next to nothing that will seem innovative for anyone who pays even marginal attention to jazz. It's a quality release: the players are among the most gifted currently working, they play well together, Alessi is a good composer, and the date is well-recorded. A fairly wide range of modern jazz fans will find it enjoyable. With its middle-ground mixing of smooth instrumentation and adventurous arrangement, though, few will find it riveting, and ultimately there's nothing here to disprove those who claim jazz has been frozen in time for a quarter-century.

Alessi comes primarily from the world of edgy, forward-thinking jazz, where artists (laboring under the misappellation "the avant-garde") hope to both fight stasis and to preserve what they see as the music's brightest past moments. He has made some notably daring recordings, including some real ragers, with his Modular Theatre group and others. The opener of This Against That, "Oversoul pt. 1", with its paranoid guitar stalk and subdued marching snare, hints at wry political commentary, and seems to suggest that we will be delivered something similar to Alessi's past work. Next is "Haw Hee", in which, over a similarly loping rhythm, Alessi (on trumpet) and Don Byron (clarinet) do a fair job of cycling through their versions of styles from Dixieland to Classical down to bebop and into free improv. But it's also on this song that Alessi first slips into the sort of neutered neo-bop that makes observers of Jazz at Lincoln Center fear for the vitality of the music. With his crystal-clear, controlled tone, the fact that he doesn't sound like this all the time can be considered an accomplishment, and on "Soy Ink" he does the best of all possible things with that clean voice -- he ventures into a rich landscape of jarring and fun atonality, and comes out with a minor gem of frenetic phrasings and precise stops.

But then we're at the Tom Garvin-penned "Elaine", and the party screeches to a halt. One of only two non-Alessi compositions on the disc, this bit of glorified lounge schmaltz has little or nothing to do with his artistic project, and one can only hope there were politics involved in the choice to record it -- perhaps it was seen as a chance to showcase Blue Note star Jason Moran's tepid piano at its least threatening. As absurd as the concept may be at a time when there are maybe a half-dozen commercial jazz stations left in the United States, "Elaine" exudes the corpse-like stench of a radio track. From this nadir, we move up the scale considerably to "Expectations", a slow and atmospheric vamp in which Nasheet Waits reprises his Little Drummer Boy rat-tat-tat bit, and Alessi is able to stretch out into a genuinely Milesian realm of looping tonal phrases. This album is at its best in this kind of laconic, open-ended, and vaguely challenging territory.

But of course, that it's "vaguely challenging" is the real problem here -- the album suffers an identity crisis, split between smooth Blue Note aspirations and downwardly mobile angst. The split does bear fruit, as when Waits breaks into a rare trot on "Angels" and Byron harnesses his inner Benny Goodman to keep pace. A genuinely fascinating collision takes place when Julie Patton performs a song-poem version of Ishmael Reed's glorious "I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra". She comes on like a pampered diva on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Diana Krall in the process of realizing the impotence of her life's work, smooth and charming one moment, raving the next. It's the perfect approach to Reed's scattershot work. The combo, perhaps inspired, lurches into a slinky Caribbean number with a distinct undertone of menace. It's a singular moment of genuine textural complexity.

But considerably more often we get schizophrenia at its least engaging, the sound of two different combos playing side-by-side, a watered-down solo over an interesting rhythm, or vice versa. It's a frustrating listen, because what could have been is so close to the surface. Since we've already bemoaned the decline of jazz, I won't speculate as to whether this sort of compromise is widely representative, or just a case of a gifted man gone temporarily timid. Even if the molten river of jazz has shrunk in size and influence, anyone who cares about the music can tell you that there are still places where it still flows hot, has not cooled, congealed, or frozen. But on This Against That it has, if nothing else, slowed to a comfortable crawl.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.