Quietly, brilliantly, Brooklyn-based jazz trumpeter Ralph Alessi is everywhere at once, defining the music with flexibility and freedom.
The trumpet still carries the air of royalty in jazz. At any time, it seems like there’s just one king -- or maybe a king and a few pretenders to the throne, each of whom is looking to knock off the top dog: Armstrong, Eldridge, Gillespie, Brown, Miles... Marsalis. You get the idea.
With the saxophone there are four different horns (baritone, alto, tenor, soprano) and a wider range of champions, tons of camps or styles. Somehow, the jazz world doesn’t push nearly as many reed players to the sideline. At any one time, there are a dozen renowned reed kings, but trumpeters have to fight harder to rise.
If way to many brass players seem shut out of the music’s limelight, I’d like to nominate one for closer inspection: Ralph Alessi. Alessi isn’t a young lion, like Ambrose Akinmusere, and he’s not fronting his own wing of the jazz business, like Marsalis or Dave Douglas. But Ralph Alessi has been a wide-ranging jazz hero for decades, and his recent work is every bit the equal of his peers, up there with the very best.
Quiver: Beauty and Brains
Alessi’s latest, Quiver, is his second recording as a leader on the elite ECM label. It falls into the relatively the rare category of a trumpet quartet record, featuring Gary Versace on piano, Scott Colley on bass, and Nasheet Waits’ drums. Like many ECM classics, this disc is beautiful and stately but generates incredible heat and tension in subtle interaction.
“Here Tomorrow” and “Smooth Descent” both open in introspective mid-tempo, but the rhythmic dialogue that develops is delicately incendiary. Waits is in constant commentary with the soloists, pushing and pulling and prodding. The harmonies in these tunes develop slowly, but the conversation is sharp and quick, with ideas quick and constant and free because they aren’t hemmed in by much restriction.
Not that the music is all smooth surfaces. “Scratch” is built on a knotty melody that turns itself around a funky, off-kilter bass line. Versace develops a lovely line, but things get more intense when Alessi dives in with flurries and jabs, which over time develop into something like a ping-pong game with Waits.
What makes Alessi special on Quiver, however, is not his mastery of the standard vocabulary of jazz trumpet. He's best and most personal in the way that he uses his extremely mutable tone and timbre to sneak more of the avant grade into this recital. Alessi rarely chooses notes that clash on the title track, for example, but drama, personality, and daring come through in how he squeezes the notes, in his moments of breathiness, and then in the way his tone opens up to the heavens.
One track later, Alessi is all edge on “Do Over”, playing with a mute to get a searing unison with the piano. “Heist”, a ballad, displays a classically pure tone: ripe, controlled, and luscious.
Nothing about Quiver is flashy, but as a pure platform of sound, it is fascinating and compelling. On your 12th listen, the discovery will still be fresh.
In It for the Long Haul
Alessi, a veteran of the New York scene since 1990, is in middle age today. He studied both trumpet and bass (including with Charlie Haden) at Cal Arts after a childhood in the Bay Area. In New York, Alessi started as a denizen of the downtown scene, playing with Steve Coleman, Uri Caine, Don Byron, and many others. The collaborations with Caine and Coleman may have been the most formative.
With Coleman, Alessi was working within a specific system, a single but independent cog in a complex, idiosyncratic machine. With Caine, he was participating in (among other projects) a series of antic, post-modern recreations of the music of Mahler, Mozart, Bach, and Verdi. These records moved from gospel to noise, Gilbert & Sullivan to funk, bebop to free, and Alessi was perfect and fleet at every turn. I will confess, however, that knowing Alessi in these settings may have caused me to wonder what his identity truly was.
Following Alessi over the years, I loved his work in several other places. On Don Byron’s Latin album You Are #6, he is critical to the ensemble, playing heraldic lead lines one moment and angular, poking muted lines the next. On the tune “A Whisper in My Ear (for Mario Bauza)”, Alessi’s solo is discursive and generous in every way: a melodic and rhythmic marvel that I can listen to over and over. On most of the albums made by fellow-Brooklyn-based, fellow-Cal Arts alum pianist James Carney, Alessi is a critical voice.
In these ensembles, Alessi is my favorite soloist and has sumptuous harmonies and dynamics to play against. Offset Rhapsody, Green-Wood, and Ways and Means are each minor masterpieces, and Alessi is a huge reason why.
For another heaping dose of brilliant Alessi, check out bassist Drew Gress’s superb 2013 recording The Sky Inside. Alessi is paired in the front line with Tim Berne’s alto saxophone while pianist Craig Taborn, drummer Tom Rainey, and the leader keep things rippling and wild. “Long Story” shows you how great Alessi is when he has partners who live as comfortably as he does in “inside/outside” territory, neither fully tonal nor without structure.
Amidst all of that work, Alessi was developing his own voice, but too few of us were on the case. His work with pianist Fred Hersch was great as a sideman, but their joint project of completely improvised duets from 2013 (Only Many) is as logical and beautifully constructed as this kind of music gets.
As a straight-up leader, Alessi started by taking similar liberties. Vice and Virtue (2002) paired Alessi with just a drummer and, sometimes, a trombone. Bracing. His band This Against That (Look recorded in 2005 and Wiry Strong recorded in 2008) strikes a perfect balance of freedom and structure, pairing him with Ravi Coltrane on some tunes, and underpinned by Andy Milne’s piano, Gress again on bass, and Mark Ferber’s drums.
The quartet featured on the new ECM record was preceded by one featuring Jason Moran on piano for Cognitive Dissonance (recorded in 2004) and Alessi’s first ECM release, Baida from 2012. It was tempting to hear the latter record as the trumpeter’s “major label” emergence from obscurity. On the first, title track, Waits’ drums and Gress’s bass create a mist from which Alessi pokes through in sputtering inquiry, only to have Moran etch gently around a growing lyricism.
Again: it is beautiful music that doesn’t settle for being merely beautiful. “Chuck Barris” is a Rubik’s Cube of interwoven melody and syncopation, “In-Flight Entertainment” sets up a dissonant collective improvisation that still swings like mad, “Maria Lydia” is a ballad composed of simple lines in floating counterpoint, and “Gobble Goblins” begins from a set of percussively repeated notes and develops into a joyful romp that spurs what may be my favorite Jason Moran performance as a sideman.
Across all this work as a leader, Alessi combines the best of so many strains of current jazz trumpet art. His sound reaches back to a wide range of sources: hard bop cracklers like Lee Morgan, the lyrical arc of Miles Davis, and the modern expressiveness of Don Cherry and Lester Bowie. His approach can be tonal, and within the jazz tradition of melodies over chords with improvising, it can thrive in a lyrical traditional of freer improvisation, and it often seems related to “new trumpet music” that we may associate with young firebrands such as Peter Evans and Nate Wooley. Somehow, Alessi makes many strains feel like one, a single sound and personality.
Scintillating Sideman Work
By starting this profile with Alessia’s latest work as a leader, I very much mean to remind listeners of his skills in composition and conception. But he remains so central to the sound of other musicians’ bands that it seems equal tribute to highlight that work.
A recent collective project is Sugar Blade, a trio with pianist Kris Davis and drummer Stephen Davis released at the end of 2015. Here, Alessi is playing as “free” as ever in his career. The start of the title track, for example, finds him playing solo trumpet, experimenting with sonority and pitch, before his bandmate’s creep in behind him, generating a conversation that follows no pre-conceived theme or harmonic pattern even as it generates a logic in the moment. The band is telepathic and loose, magical really in its ability to invent in the moment.
The best moment? “Red Velvet Bun” is proceeding in a free swinging groove, with Kris Davis playing wide-intervaled bass notes that underpin Alessi’s skittering trumpet line when, emerging from the groove
Last year also saw the release of Zenith, a quartet date featuring Ralph Alessi from pianist Marc Copland. The instrumentation is like that of Alessi’s quartet, including having Drew Gress on bass. Fours compositions are by the pianist, but they also tackle Duke Ellington’s “Mystery Song”, an early classic by Ellington that is mostly a hip, minor riff over a groove. The band uses it as a launching point for a swaying exploration of melody and dancing Latin syncopations. During Alessi’s solo, he is dramatic, heraldic, but also daring, slipping outside the normal harmonies at will, but never losing your interest.
The music on Zenith -- as on all of Alessi’s recent recordings -- suggests that Alessi and his musical direction are a shared venture. “Air We’ve Never Breathed”, the centerpiece of the album and seemingly a completely improvised piece, features the trumpeter, muted, dodging around a knotty melody before things grow lyrical and contemplative. The language shared by the foursome is flowing and easy to hear -- it's the sound of modern jazz in 2016. This mixture of freedom and concern for structure, of careful conversation and passionate individual sound, is as pure in the music of Alessi (and his contemporaries) as it is anywhere in jazz today.
Which is to say, if I had to nominate one trumpet player to represent the state of the music right now, I’d as likely think of Alessi as anyone else. Innovative, wise, artful, unpredictable, brilliant.
Ralph Alessi for trumpet king. Why not?