Being a trumpet player in New York City can be a daunting occupation. The city is full of monster musicians and there is competition for gigs among bands, and among individuals. Jazz musicians are a tight community, but it's still a survival game.
But Ralph Alessi, a Big Apple resident for about the last 15 years, is thriving busy making music of his own, with his own bands, that is esoteric and invigorating, and landing gigs with other notable bands. His strong tone, fluid chops and eagerness to explore have endeared him to other musicians. So with all that, and his love of teaching, he is thriving. The city has chewed up many a musician, but Alessi recently moved to Brooklyn hopes to last in New York City for a long time.
Alessi is leading two bands at the moment, This Against That and Modular Theater, the latter which includes poet Will Jennings. He's also performed with the recent tour of Fred Hersch's well-regarded Leaves of Grass, which puts the words of Walt Whitman to music. (A CD of the same name documents that project). He's played with Ravi Coltrane, has done work with Don Byron and Uri Caine and finds a myriad of other things to get involved with since the San Francisco Bay area lad relocated to the East. And yet Alessi doesn't really think about playing "jazz." Just music.
"I understand when I'm playing music that's coming from that tradition (jazz) on some level. I don't like to think about things in styles. I generally like to just think of it as music. I know that's a cliché. But I really feel that," he says.
"When I listen to music on iTunes, I put it in shuffle mode. Everyone has their version of good music. It's subjective. I have my version of good music in there. I often put it in shuffle mode. After a while, I really don't hear a difference between Bird and James Brown or Stravinsky or Ornette (Coleman), whatever. I feel like I do a pretty good job of just hearing it as music. The stylistic wrappings are left to whomever. If people want to put it in those boxes, that's fine. But I try to hear it as just essentially what it is vibrations and sound. And then noticing a similar theme throughout those different types of music, whether it's just dealing with rhythm or sound or composition. Hearing those things as that, rather than hearing it just funk. Those are just styles.
"I do like the opportunity to play in these different situations. Because it can be very challenging. I'd rather have it that way."
To Alessi, improvisation is "a spirit of exploration. Because improvisation is one of those loaded words. People have a different connection to that. But my connection is more of exploring the unknown. Going out on the ledge a little bit," and he hires musicians who think the same way.
Challenges, indeed, are vital to most free-thinking jazz musicians. For Alessi, growing on his instrument and growing as a musician and a writer is something he values. He's had his down times in the cyclical music business, but times are good now. Though he hasn't released a new album in a couple years, he'd like to so do this year and is eyeing various options.
His last record as a leader, This Against That came out on Coltrane's RKM label, about the same time as Vice and Virtue, a duet, for the most part, with Shane Endsley. "I'm talking to a label right now about putting out a record. There's a Modular Theater record that's done. I just need to find a label that will put it out, or I'll just put it out myself. Then we'll put out a This Against That record. Hopefully both of those will come out this year. That's in the works right now... I really need to put at least one record out this year. I'm trying to finalize that."
Alessi has played with all kinds of superb New York City musicians and in 1994, he appeared on Steve Coleman's Tale of Three Cities, the first of six Coleman recordings of which he was a part. Coleman remains a strong influence and an important collaborator. The 1995 release of Circa, by pianist Michael Cain, received critical acclaim and included Alessi's trumpet voice.
"The stronger musicians and the ones you've spent the most time with seem to be the most lasting in terms of influence. Steve Coleman, definitely. Uri Caine. I played with him a lot," Alessi says. "It's more about time. The more time you spend with someone that really has something unique as a musician that is going to stick... Definitely playing with Steve Coleman was a big breakthrough. Ravi Coltrane. Playing with Michael Cain led to some other things.
"I believe Uri Caine heard the Circa record. Playing with Fred (Hersch) also came from that record. It's a really nice record and I was fortunate to be a part of that. I have a few of my compositions on there. I know Fred heard that record several years ago. He got to a point where he wanted to start playing with more musicians and my name came to mind based on that recording. The same thing with Uri Caine as well. That was big.
"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.