Ralph Lalama: Steppin' Out, Steppin' Forward
"Today, everybody seems like they're writing all kinds of hard shit and what they're playing over it isn't thatit's less complicated that the song is," he says. "I like to play simple songs and make them more complicated. Add different colors to it rather than have to play all the colors every second. I like to go in and out, personally. I like to still play songs like thatsimple, but you can create something on top of it."
Some of the younger musicians, he notes, are writing complex things, sometimes for the sake of being complex. But "when they play, they're not really that complex. ... They kind of play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' over all that [complex] shit," he laughs quietly. "I like to play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and play crazy stuff over itnot crazy, but the stuff I'm into over it." Of his style and approach, he adds, "I'm still workin' on it. Still workin.' It's a work in progress."
Lalama is at his most expressive on the record on the ballad "Portrait of Jennie," which he dedicates to his mother, the late Jennie Lalama, a professional singer who was an early musical influence. On it, he is at his melodic best, and his sumptuous tone brings out the best in the song.
"She sang the American Songbook," he says of his mother. "I always wondered why my appetite for music was at a high level. I always wanted to listen to it or play it. It's what I gravitated toward. Even though I played sports, but music was like ... One day I asked my mother. She said I was born on January 30th. And her last gig before I was born was New Year's Eve. So I was in her womb for eight months hearing these tunes live on the stage. I was hearing that vibration. It happened naturally. ... I like playing the American Songbook. It's in my blood."
Lalama's pal and musical cohort, Lovano, also wrote album notes for the recording. "We go way back. We still argue," he says jokingly. "I met him at a club in Cleveland. I was going to Youngstown State University [Ohio] for a music degree. Lovano lived in Cleveland. There was a great club called the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. They would have everybody. I heard Stan Getzthere. Miles Davis. Chick Corea. Herbie Hancock. Freddie Hubbard. Junior Cook. Sonny Stitt. It was a great clubsix nights a week, from Monday to Saturday. Sometimes Lovano or different local guys would play a set before the kingpins, the main acts. There was this kid, I didn't know who he was at the time, but it was Lovano. We got talking a few times.
"In 1976, I think it was, I joined Woody Herman's band, and there he was. We've been playing ever since. We played in that band. I play in his nonet. We played with Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra for about 10 years, together. Plus everything else we did here in town [New York City]. A couple things here and there. He's my man. We went to different schools together."
Lovano, for his part, states in his album notes that the group plays "with a joyous attitude that defines what jazz music is all about."
Before the Smiling Dog days, Lalama's musical roots were influenced by his grandfather and his parents. His father, Nofrey, was a drummer and met his mother on the bandstand, so music was bound to ensue. (His brother, David, teaches music at Hofstra University and the Manhattan School of Music.) Like many youngsters, the clarinet became his first experience with reed instruments.
"My grandfather gave me my first clarinet when I was 9. He was a clarinet and alto player. Then I ended up getting a tenor for Christmas when I was 14. I started fooling around with that. Music was in the air in the house. My father listened to Sonny Stitt and Stan Getz. My mother was a singer, so we listened to Ella Fitzgerald, the big bands." As rock music became prominent on the scene, it was soul stuff that Lalama preferred.
"I liked James Brown. Not that I didn't like the other. I listened to Stitt when I was 14. It was difficult to figure out, for me, at the time. The groups that I played with at that age14, 15, 16we played like James Brown. So I was into Maceo Parker [Parker]. But it evolved from that. Jazz was always there. I wasn't one of these kids that: my parents liked it, so I hated it. I wasn't one of those. I liked it because it grooves. I had that record of Stitt with Jack McDuff. [Sonny Stitt with Jack McDuff; Stitt Meets Brother Jack (OJC, 1962)]. I wore that one out."