Ralph Alessi: Enjoying Musical Possibilities
"My time when I was teaching at Eastman, that was an influence. I did a week playing, talking about music and hanging," says the trumpeter. "Any time you play with someone, it can be just one experience. But if they are hitting mentally with you, it's a good experience."
Alessi started young on the trumpet, studying with his father Joseph when he was 6. he found jazz in high school. "I definitely had a hunger for it. The usual suspects. Early on, most players think more about their instrument, so they're listening to music with that in mind. I went through a serious Clifford Brown phase, a serious Freddie Hubbard phase, Miles Davis, Tom Harrell, Kenny Wheeler. Later on, others. Don Cherry. So many."
In the Bay Area, Alessi freelanced as a classical player, playing engagements with the San Francisco Symphony, opera and chamber orchestras. He attended the California Institute for the Arts, where he studied with Charlie Haden. He earned degrees in jazz trumpet performance and in jazz bass performance. Having his life touched by Haden, renowned for his work at CalArts in addition to his exceptional bass playing, had an impact.
"It was the basis for the way I teach, in a lot of ways. Charlie's approach is really pared down to the love of music, the love of playing, and then bringing that into the classroom. That goes a long way. Arguably, that's maybe THE way to teach, rather than talking about rules and not encouraging students to explore," Alessi explains. "He would just bring his enthusiasm into the classroom. He would always bring music with him to play for us that he was excited about. He'd say, 'check this out... check this out.' He would react naturally.
"I remember one time he played this Horace Silver solo on 'Lonely Woman,' and he was literally singing every note as he was listening to it. That's an important experience. It's easy in a school situation for students to lose their passion for it if they get bombarded with information. Charlie's way of teaching was exposing us to music and then just having us play all the time. Encouraging us. We had the opportunity to play with him and just to be next to that sound is an education in and of itself.
"It's more about improvisation. He would share a lot of anecdotes from his experience of playing with Ornette. Things Ornette talked about. It was a pretty valuable experience for all of us there, something you're not going to get in a school situation."
In New York, work with Coltrane became important in the late 1990s and in 2000, Alessi released his first recording as a leader, Hissy Fit.
These days, teaching particularly as one of the instructors at the School for Improvisational Music is a big part of Alessi's bag. "It's very near and dear to my heart," he says.
"Right now we're doing these isolated workshops. I think we've done our seventh at City College. The short-term goal is to put on these seminars. The long-term goal is to create a school that will be an option for students wanting to study jazz, improvised music. We're in the midst of dealing with that. We had a meeting charting out our plans for this year. In addition to doing workshops in August, we're going to do a benefit concert that will feature faculty, people that have been involved. The list will be drawn from people like Steve Coleman and Don Byron, Uri Caine, Ravi Coltrane. On and on. These are all people that have been participating in this. It's something I'm very excited about and something I feel is very, very important. It's about education, which is paramount to the existence of culture, really. I just feel like education often times misses the boat. So we're going forward with this idea.
"The idea is to get funding to promote this more and make it more available to students all over the world. We've had 100 students from North America, Europe, Australia... We started out at the Knitting Factory, then we moved to some other locations. Now we're doing it at City College.
Students from all over participate and stay in the city for a week while they are attending seminars conducted my notable musicians. "In a lot of ways that speaks to why we are doing it," says Alessi, "because a lot of these people fall outside the mold of what a teacher's supposed to be and the qualifications they're supposed to have. Our idea is that the people that are the most qualified are the people that have been doing it. They speak from experience.