Ralph Lalama's rich tenor saxophone voice has been heard for years on the New York City scene, perhaps most notably with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and its predecessors, first led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and later by just Lewis. He's a guy who grew up when rock music was fully bursting on the American scene, but maintains that not much of that music touched him. He came from a family that listened to jazz and the American Popular Song canon, and he chose that direction.
"The feeling of it," is the turn-on of jazz to the Pennsylvania native who has called the Big Apple area his home for several years now. He's not native, but he's a New Yorker, alright. He's got the style of speech, a kind of dry New York Italian sense of humor and a what-me-worry casualness about him. "I love the beat. I'm a beat guy. And I love the interactionthe conversation on the bandstand, musically, of course. I think the U.S. Senate could learn a lot if they just listened to jazz sometime. They really should."
"Some corporations do. They present jazz to their corporations, to show how to get camaraderie and listening to each other and know what everybody else is doing, to make a whole. A couple guys told me this happens. I think Congress should get into it, instead of listening to Bruce Springsteen," he adds with an exaggerated "steeeen" in a semi-gruff but amiable manner. It's a manner that bears no ill will toward Springsteen or anyone, really. Lalama is just direct, that's all, and wears his love of jazz standards and jazz music on his sleeve.
Lalama plays with deep feeling that has carried him through the big bands of Jones and Lewis, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and the Carnegie Hall group led by Jon Faddis. His muscular sound has also placed him in all kinds of small group contexts around New York City over the years, and earned him a spot in Joe Lovano's nonet when that group gets together for periodic gigs and tours.
Getting back to that feeling, Lalama remembers when he broke up with a girlfriend many years ago and discovered that "every time I would play, I would feel much better than when I wasn't. It was therapy. It never hit me that hard, how really soulful that stuff is. Playing these songs, they meant much more to me than they ever did. It affects you physically and emotionally, intellectually. It's really soothingnot all smooth; I don't mean that. It can be John Coltrane, banging it away. It can be Stan Getz playing a ballad. It can be Miles Davis. It can be Miles playing funk. It's great. Wow. The true artists, when you listen to it, then you listen to it eight years from now, you're still turned on. Twenty years from nowthe same way."
"I don't feel the same way about the Grand Funk Railroad, that's for sure," he adds with a soft laugh.
The feeling Lalama achieves in his playing has been captured on a handful of recordings under his own name, but the latest example surfaced this year. The Audience (Mighty Quinn Productions, 2010) was cut with the saxophonist's working quartet. It was done pretty much live, no overdubs. It's the second album the group has done for the label, whose owner, Jerry Roche, urged the band to record a few years back, the first result being Energy Fields (Mighty Quinn Productions, 2008).
Lalama plays largely jazz standards in the company of guitarist John Hart, a tasty foil for his tenor, and the always rock-solid rhythm section of veterans Rick Petrone on bass and Nick Corsello on drums. Listening to the disc is like sitting in a club listening to this very talented group run though its set list, conversing with one another and, in doing so, making a great overall sound with an elasticity, but with a central focus.
Says Lalama, "We set up and we hit. A couple takes on a couple tunes. Some were just one take. That's the way I like to do it, unless it's a big productionthat's another story. But this wasn't a big production, just guys playing." As for its natural feel, his response, is simple: "Yeah. Jazz." The two words are punctuated with a chuckle. Uncomplicated.
The disk covers songs like Wayne Shorter's "Marie Antionette," Duke Pearson's "Minor League," and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." Notable is a stroll through "I'm an Old Cowhand," a nod to Sonny Rollins who famously did the tune in 1957. "I love Sonny Rollins. He's one of my heroes. I still listen to him," says Lalama.
Playing "Cowhand" isn't just a Rollins thing, however. It's an example of the kind of music Lalama likes to improvise over: simpler melodies, simpler concepts, over which he likes to find more complex ways of expressing himself.