“What Mr. Alessi prizes in music is not the impeccable but the ineffable: the thrill of seeking but not knowing.” — Nate Chinen, The New York Times
There are magic moments when an artist can be said to have well and truly “arrived.” For Ralph Alessi, the release of Baida – his ECM debut as a bandleader – is just such a moment, despite his already extensive resume. Among those in the know, Alessi is renowned as a musician’s musician, a first-call New York trumpeter who can play virtually anything on sight and has excelled as an improviser in groups led by Steve Coleman, Uri Caine, Ravi Coltrane, Fred Hersch and Don Byron, as well as leading his own bands on stage and on record. But Alessi has created something breathtaking with Baida, an album sure to beguile a wider audience with its atmospheric depth and melodic allure. To voice his compositions, the trumpeter has convened a powerhouse New York band with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. As a vessel for the album’s seemingly bottomless lyricism, this quartet of virtuosos plays with extraordinary finesse; but there is also a tensile strength emanating from the performances, a muscularity that one can feel. Then there is the silver of Alessi’s trumpet tone: As The New York Times has said, it has “a rounded luminescence, like the moon in full phase.”
Baida was recorded in October 2012 at New York City’s Avatar Studios, with Manfred Eicher helming the session. Framing Baida is the enthralling melody of Alessi’s title composition – at deeply atmospheric length to open the album (the trumpeter on open horn) and in a lyrically flowing reprise to close (with Alessi switching to a Harmon mute). “Chuck Barris” showcases the quartet’s rhythmic acuity, as well as the trumpeter’s every-note-counts invention as an improviser. “Gobble Goblins” is another rhythmic marvel, with Moran playing incisive minimalist repetitions as Waits roils freely and Alessi’s solos underscore what The New York Times called “an astonishment of fluency” when describing his technique. “Throwing Like a Girl” opens with Gress’s deep-toned rumble and Alessi’s horn darting in and around, as Moran follows him and Waits raps out a near-military tattoo underneath. “11/1/10” further demonstrates what The Times has dubbed the “earthy elasticity” of the Gress/Waits rhythm battery, and another highlight is “Sanity,” a haunted ballad. “I Go, You Go” has a Nino Rota-like lyrical playfulness, while “Maria Lydia” channels a 1960s Stravinsky song as a memorial to Alessi’s late mother, an opera singer. One mood flows into the next virtually suite-like, making Baida a captivating experience as an album.
Reviewing a performance at New York’s Jazz Standard by Alessi’s group with Moran, Gress and Waits, The New York Times was impressed by how the show “had the urgent force and clarity of a manifesto… The quartet sounded unstoppably inventive.” This foursome first made an appearance for a few tunes on Alessi’s 2002 album, This Against That, and then again on his 2010 release, Cognitive Dissonance. He recalls about that initial encounter, “All three of the guys immediately got the music, even though these were things that we were reading on the spot. They all played the music as if they had been performing it for years – they owned the music, shaped it, brought something to it… The thing about this band is that we all have confidence in each other. We all feel that there’s a give-and-take, and we’re all fine with the music taking different directions. That’s what I enjoy about playing music – I like the surprises. The rehearsal we’ve done over the years has been minimal – it’s a fearless band. We’re happy to jump into the void and play.”
Pianist Jason Moran – a long time Blue Note recording artist and one of America’s top young movers-and-shakers in music (receiving a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2010) – has appeared on four ECM albums with Charles Lloyd, including their 2012 duo release, Hagar’s Song. Moran also featured alongside Chris Potter on Paul Motian’s 2010 trio album Lost in a Dream, recorded live at the Village Vanguard. About Moran’s contribution to Baida, Alessi says: “Jason is so good at orchestrating the music. I give the band scores, so he knows everyone else’s parts and he jumps around, doubling melodies, playing countermelodies, orchestrating in an improvised way.”
Alessi has been playing with Drew Gress since they teamed in the late 1990s for one of pianist Uri Caine’s groups. “What I love about Drew’s playing are the choices he makes as a bass player – and the way he really understands the bass function,” the trumpeter says. “A lot of my pieces have bass lines that serve as melodies, sometimes ostinato things. He has no problem serving the music by playing those parts, although he always knows when he can open things up and take it to a different place. His ears are amazing, and he’s a great composer himself, so he brings that sensibility to the music.”
As for Nasheet Waits – one of New York’s most creative drummers, who gives a deeply musical performance on Baida, always providing the sound of surprise as well as groove – he and Alessi first played together more than a decade ago as members of pianist Fred Hersch’s quintet. “Nasheet has this quality that I love in a musician, particularly drummers – he has this third eye, this intuitive way of playing the music,” Alessi says. “He can hear things before they happen and frame the music, especially on this record. He was constantly moving the music, moving it with ideas. Also, he is as fearless as they come as an improviser. One of my favorite moments on the record is those first sounds he makes on ‘Baida,’ and the space he leaves. One of the nice things about this album is that the music allows these musicians to play in a slightly different way – leaving space, allowing the music to ring and reverberate.”
Although Baida features music of deep emotion and pensive ambience, Alessi’s sense of humor shows in his song titles. The name of the album’s title tune, “Baida,” comes from the word Alessi’s toddler daughter uses for “blanket.” Then there is “Chuck Barris,” titled for the infamous game-show host/producer responsible for The Dating Game, The Gong Show and other low-brow – but incredibly prescient – 1970s hits on American TV. Barris also penned a deadpan memoir insisting that he led a double life as a CIA assassin at the same time he was spinning plates as an prime-time entertainer. On a more serious note, Alessi wrote and titled “Maria Lydia” for his mother, who passed away not long after he finished recording the album. “It was nice for me that at the end of her life she was able to listen to the record,” he explains. “She was mostly sleeping a lot, but once when she woke up, I put the headphones on her with that piece playing. I wasn’t even sure that she was listening. But when I took the headphones off, she just said, ‘Gorgeous’.”
LondonJazz portrayed Alessi’s art thusly: “His stock-in-trade when he plays is to make the angularities and asymmetries of complex tunes sound natural, to assert their logic, to lead. There is always the sense of a direction of travel. His trumpet sound is full, focused and a constant pleasure to hear.”
Ralph Alessi was born in San Francisco, the son of classical trumpeter Joe Alessi and opera singer Maria Leone. After taking degrees in jazz trumpet and bass – he studied under the legendary Charlie Haden at the California Institute for the Arts – he moved to New York City, where he soon became an ubiquitous presence on the downtown scene. As a leader, Alessi has forged a discography that includes Cognitive Dissonance (with Moran, Gress and Waits, 2010) and Vice & Virtue (2002), as well as three albums with his band This Against That: Wiry Strong (2011), Look (2007) and This Against That (2002); and two albums with his band Modular Theater: Open Season (2009) and Hissy Fit (1999). Among the critical acclaim for these releases, JazzTimes named This Against That’s debut one of the 10 best recordings of 2002. Cognitive Dissonance received a four-star review in DownBeat and was included in the year-end list of top-10 best recordings in The New Republic. Earlier this year, Alessi joined Fred Hersch to release the duo set Only Many. The trumpeter first recorded for ECM on pianist Michael Caine’s 2000 release, Circa.
As an educator, Alessi has helped shape an up-and-coming generation of jazz musicians since 2001 as founder-director of the School for Improvisational Music (www.schoolforimprov.org), a non-profit entity that holds workshops in New York City led by some of the most renowned improvisers from the jazz and contemporary-music fields. Alessi has also been on the jazz faculty of New York University since 2002.