Ralph Alessi Rubs This Against That For Musical Satisfaction

Trumpeter’s Quintet Improvises With A Lyrical Edge

Mel Minter
4 min read
Ralph Alessi and This Against That
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Trumpeter, composer and educator Ralph Alessi doesn’t have a problem winging it.

Look, his recent—and exuberant—recording (Between the Lines Records) with his quintet, This Against That, includes several tunes the group had been playing live for a year. “But there were five or six things that were rehearsed once a few days before the session,” Alessi says. “I don’t know if I should mention that. The reason I’m mentioning it is because the musicians are really amazing, and I have so much trust in them.”

Given the caliber of the musicians—saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Mark Ferber—that makes sense.

This Thursday, Alessi and This Against That will bring their fresh, invigorating sound and assured spontaneity to the Outpost for an evening of improvised music that draws on Alessi’s diverse musical background. (Ben Street and Gerald Cleaver will sit in for Gress and Ferber, respectively.)

From the Classics to da Funk

Growing up in the Bay Area in a musical household, Alessi’s first influences were classical—both parents are classical musicians—and he concentrated on formal trumpet studies.

Meanwhile, he was listening to top-40 radio and developing a taste for the funk, soul and rock ’n’ roll that were a staple of ’70s airwaves. In the mid-’80s, his focus shifted to jazz while attending Cal Arts, where he studied with bassist/composer Charlie Haden and flutist/composer James Newton.

“He’s an incredibly flexible musician,” says Newton. “He can play in many styles within improvisational music. I love his sound on the instrument—it has a lot of feeling, well-developed ideas, inflections that give it meaning. He has a great sense of humor.”

From West to East

Alessi’s qualities as a player found him work in Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra in L.A. Since moving to New York in 1991, he’s played with a who’s-who of look-ahead jazz, including Don Byron, Fred Hersch and Uri Caine, among others.

Saxophonist Steve Coleman, with whom Alessi played for several years, had perhaps the most profound influence. That association “made me a better musician for sure, just being around him.”

The move east seemed to ignite Alessi’s creative juices. In addition to playing as a sideman on numerous projects, he now heads three or four groups of his own and has released five CDs as a leader.

An educator as well, previously teaching at Eastman and now at NYU, he cofounded the School for Improvisational Music. The school emphasizes a uniquely collaborative process between teachers and students that focuses on the creative process and on preparation for the real (i.e., nonacademic) world of music.

From Here to There

Alessi’s compositions for the quintet include contemplative sonic haiku with a classical feel, post-bop burners and funk/soul grooves extrapolated by a musical calculus into a neighboring galaxy. What they all share is spaciousness, playfulness and a lack of concern with genre.

“I’m not even really trying
not to put it in a box, but I’m happy in a way that it ends up being that way,” Alessi says. “I have a lot of different interests in music, and I try to express those.”

The quintet has a disarming flair for going outside the harmonic context without losing touch with it, inducing an exhilaration unaccompanied by vertigo.

Alessi credits the musicians: “They are simultaneously able to take chances but still be … grounded, which is really the ultimate. The big reason for [playing improvised music] is to keep experimenting and to keep finding new possibilities and stretching. It’s the reason why I do this as opposed to playing, let’s say, classical music.”

Ralph Alessi and This Against That appear at the Outpost Performance Space on Thursday, March 15, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20 and $15 for members, available at the Outpost (210 Yale SE, 268-0044).

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