Ralph Alessi Reconvenes Ensemble for ‘Imaginary Friends’

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Ravi Coltrane (left), Drew Gress, Ralph Alessi and Mark Ferber perform Jan. 11 at Le Poisson Rouge in New York.

(Photo: Adam McCullough)

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s third album for ECM, the post-bop, neoclassical, subtly disjunctive Imaginary Friends, reunites the bandleader with a quintet founded in 2002, appropriately named This Against That. As for the group’s appellation, Alessi, sitting in the green room at Le Poisson Rouge before a Winter Jazzfest showcase, reflected that it was “a name that just popped into my head.”

He added, “It’s about how opposites interact with a typical kind of music that has varying things happening simultaneously. It’s fast versus slow, high against low. Plus, I like the way the words sound, so it stuck as This Against That.”

Onstage at LPR, Alessi and his bandmates—Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Andy Milne on prepared piano and the simpatico duo of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Mark Ferber—found a tonal balance in the bandleader’s melodic compositions and surprising harmonies. Coltrane served as the perfect foil, mirroring the trumpet lines and navigating the counterpoint inherent in the music. On trumpet, Alessi didn’t flash or riff, but rather coaxed the lyrical soul and fire out of his horn with fluidity and a relaxed pace. On the tune “Fun Room,” Alessi played different improvisational trumpet voicings. “That song came about when I decided to use a slide in the studio to see what it would sound like,” he recalled. “I have to say that I stole that idea of using extended technique from Nate Wooley.”

Another highlight of the show was Alessi’s new gem “Oxide,” which opened mysteriously with Milne on piano and later featured trumpet-sax harmony that grew into a gentle conversation. “This started out as a piece that wasn’t fully fleshed out,” Alessi said. “But on our two-week European tour before going into the studio, it gradually began to tighten up at the soundchecks. The melody evolved over a period of time. It started as an ostinato kind of thing. When I found the melody, then I heard the harmonies.”

After the concert, Alessi said that when he discussed the idea of going another round with This Against That to ECM principal Manfred Eicher, he talked about the trust the band enjoys. “I told Manfred we have a history, and I know the sound of the band,” the trumpeter said. “And I knew that the way Manfred records, he would capture all the nuances, particularly Andy as a dynamic harmonic pianist and the way he prepares the piano. I loved the way Manfred captured the sound on ‘Oxide,’ which was almost tailor-made for him.”

A veteran of the M-Base collective days—when he was a colleague with Milne and saxophonist Steve Coleman, among others—Alessi enjoys a deep connection with the members of his quintet. “We all have strong voices, and we have history,” he explained. “We’re friends and spent a lot of time playing the music and just hanging out. What we do speaks to my interest in making music. We play over song forms, we improvise in ways that sometimes are more sonic, others more rhythmic. We’ve developed a strong rapport over the years.”

The key figure in the band is Coltrane, one of Alessi’s best friends since 1986, when they met at the California Institute of the Arts. They became roommates and later moved to New York and lived in a house together in Queens, where Coltrane’s label RKM recorded the first TAT album. “We’ve played a lot of music over the years,” Alessi said. “We have a sonic connection. I love his sound. People have told us about our blend. I think that comes from our friendship and the similar synergy we bring to the music. It transcends words. We play off each other, pushing and pulling the melodies.”

“Yes, it is our special blend,” Coltrane said over the phone. “It’s like we’re having a conversation. We’re like brothers, so we’re just hanging out and having fun. It’s reached a point where all Ralph has to do is play one note and I know his sound. After all, I listened to him practicing for a long time. One of Ralph’s great strengths is playing trumpet with a killer instinct. He has three generations of brass in his blood and has become a master. Equal to that is Ralph’s compositions. His music is unique in a melodic sense. He has a distinct ear for a lyrical line. He hears all these melodies and is confident that he can take them to a different place.”

Case in point: the captivating leadoff track on Imaginary Friends, “Iram Issela” (Alessi’s 8-year-old daughter’s name spelled backward), which stretches for nearly 10 minutes with reflective improvisations of inventive instrumental shapes by him, Coltrane and Milne.

“It’s an older tune that we’d been workshopping,” Alessi said. “I wrote the first part and let it sit for a while. It didn’t have a second section, but as we played it each night, with Ravi opening with Andy, the band dictated how it would finish. We finally got to a place where it all came to fruition. I’m pretty open to following the lead of my musicians to see where they’ll go.”

Referring to the album title (named for the tune “Imaginary Friends,” which features trumpet-tenor interplay in a dreamlike-to-frenzied setting), Alessi said, “I liked the ambiguity of it. It’s by design that my music is idiosyncratic, sometimes to a fault. I don’t allow myself to just write something that’s a little more familiar. Actually, I veer away from that. I may be wanting to offset my comfort zone. I’m a hybrid musician, and I have a lot of references from different streams. I played a lot of classical trumpet—études and melodies, tonal and atonal. But Stevie Wonder is also an influence, as are Afro-Cuban folk and Steve Coleman.”

While he’s motivated to concentrate on This Against That, Alessi still enjoys being a sideman. “I feed off it,” he said. “I’m always learning something new as a player and composer. It keeps things flowing in me. When I played in Jason Moran’s Monk project at the Orvieto festival in Italy in 2017, he really informed me. He’s the quintessential bandleader for my taste. He keeps things every minimal and he’s very open about my ideas. Over the years that we’ve recorded together, he’s influenced me in the way I play and write and lead a band.”

After three years of teaching as an assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of Nevada–Reno, Alessi is set to return to New York in May. “If circumstances were different, I would have stayed longer,” he said. “But I have a daughter in New York. It’s time for me to come back. And I’ll also be putting my energy back into the School for Improvisational Music that I started as a nonprofit in 2001. Year 18 is coming up. My original idea to have such a place blossomed into a school. It’s now housed in the Brooklyn Conservatory. I’m looking forward to getting back and expanding it into something bigger.” DB



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