Ralph Alessi - continuing the family business
It was an idea that never happened: the Alessi Brothers meet the Alessi brothers. So we’ll never know what the identical twins responsible for 1970s and 1980s pop hits including Oh Lori made of working with their namesakes, trumpeter Ralph and trombonist Joseph, whose plan it was for the four to work together.
Ralph Alessi has the tone of the long-suffering younger brother in relating this tale. Besides, his side of the Alessi clan has more than enough musical history of its own. The trumpeter, who returns to Scotland to play at Aberdeen Jazz Festival next week, comes from a long line of brass players, going back beyond his grandfather, who had been a revered cornet virtuoso in Sicily before emigrating to America. There he became the principal trumpet player with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, a role he passed on to Ralph’s father, also Joseph.
For a long time Ralph expected to follow a similar path. His parents, who had met while both were with the Met – his mother was a singer – had moved to California by the time he and his brother came along and Ralph’s future was decided when he began taking lessons from his father at the age of six.
“People ask if my father was an influence and he was – beginning when he told me, You will play the trumpet,” says Alessi down the line from Paris, where he’s on a four-day residency at the Conservatoire before his group convenes for the European tour that brings it to Aberdeen.
“Dad was a great teacher [he also designed the Jo-Ral trumpet mute, named after his sons] but I like to think that my mother had an influence too. There’s a way of playing the trumpet that’s like singing, in terms of tone and phrasing. That’s what I aspire to and although my mum had retired from singing professionally, she kept up her practice routine and some of that rubbed off on my brother and me. We both learned a lot from listening to her going through her exercises.”
Alessi, who now records for ECM Records, one of the most revered jazz labels, came to jazz after freelancing with chamber ensembles and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In his mid-twenties he enrolled at California Institute of the Arts, where he came under the spell of legendary bassist Charlie Haden. Previously, youthful experiments with synthesisers and “playing the way you do before you get to know what you’re doing” aside, he had little experience of improvised music.
“I’d always thought of jazz as being more formal and rooted in rules,” he says. “I certainly hadn’t played free jazz or open improvisation, as I call it, and when Charlie Haden had us improvising on Ornette Coleman tunes, coming from a classical background, at first it felt very foreign to me. But just being around Charlie got me thinking about exploring music in that way and over the five or six years I spent at Cal Arts I got two degrees and became more and more comfortable with creative exploration.”
Soon after he left Cal Arts Alessi’s friends started heading to New York. The difference in lifestyles between San Francisco’s Bay Area, where he grew up, and New York is, he says, “like night and day” and he had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to the east coast. Once in New York, however, he learned to adapt to a faster pace and he realised that if he was to continue the experience he’d had at Cal Arts, New York was the only place to be.
He presently fell in with musicians including saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, with whom he recorded for Blue Note Records, pianist and one-man jazz faculty Fred Hersch and saxophonist Steve Coleman, whose M-Base collective was, says Alessi, like Coleman’s very own university of music making.
“Anyone who plays with Steve will be deeply influenced by him,” he says. “He has such a strong voice and he’s a real force, very intense. Music is 24/7 for him and the way he thinks about music as going back to the beginnings of African folklore was a real career changer for me.”
The group Alessi brings to Aberdeen is the second edition of his Baida Quartet, with Gary Versace on piano, having replaced Jason Moran, alongside bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. It continues Alessi’s search for new ways of expressing himself in music while drawing on twenty-five years’ experience.
“We’ve played a lot of gigs with this line-up,” says Alessi, who has just joined the staff at the University of Nevada. “I’ve been working with Drew and Nasheet for twelve years or more now, Gary a bit less than that, and it really feels like a band. We’re not on the road together all the time because we all have other commitments but I always really look forward to playing with them.”
Ralph Alessi’s Baida Quartet plays Blue Lamp Aberdeen on Thursday, March 17.
From The Herald, March 9, 2016