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.