The Turning Point Café
May 18, 2009
On Mondays, tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama plays in the reed section and is one of the featured soloists of the venerable Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. He recently took a night off to lead a quartet at The Turning Point Café, a small, comfortable venue about 25 miles north of Manhattan. The gig generated some advance buzz because Lalama was slated to come in with the group which played on the splendid Energy Fields (Mighty Quinn), his first record as a leader in a decade.
Catching Lalama, a bona fide jazz master, in these circumstances was truly something special. Playing mostly material from the record, he sounded totally at ease with the horn, the songs, and his sidemen. At medium and up tempos his tone was gruff and as thick as taffy. The crusty exterior smoothed out somewhat on ballads. Although his solos aren't lengthy by today's standards, Lalama was never in a hurry to reach a climax or any particular destination. The sturdy improvisations coalesced as a whole, and you could always count on some tantalizing details along the way.
During "I Hear A Rhapsody," the set's opener, Lalama introduced logical, evenly paced sets of ideas, and then truncated several notes in a row. Later on he played a sequence that was uncharacteristically loud and broadly pronounced before coming back down and offering a long scrambled run. After making mention of Frank Sinatra's rendition, Lalama caressed the melody of "Indian Summer." He began an improvisation by pushing a group of notes into place, paused to let it take effect, crooned like a 1940s pop singer for a few bars, and then cut loose with an agitated burst of notes in the horn's upper resister.
In addition to offering prudent commentary to Lalama's solos, guitarist John Hart's improvisations evinced a patchwork of jazz, blues, and popular music influences. It was a pleasure to hear him ride atop of and take rhythmic liberties with the no nonsense swing of bassist Rich Petrone and drummer Joe Corsello. During "I Hear A Rhapsody," a low pitched chord popped out of a lengthy straight-ahead interlude. As if repeatedly turning a switch on and off, two single notes were answered by an abrupt chord. In the middle of "Just In Time," Hart generated an abstract, convoluted kind of momentum. At one point he leaned into a single note, held it for a few bars, and then diced the tune's melody in an icy, emotionally detached manner.
The band had played for over an hour when Lalama's cadenza indicated the end of the ballad "Like Someone In Love." He found a phrase, worked it to his satisfaction, inserted bits of the melody, and then manipulated another phase. A partisan crowd listened intently to every note and went bonkers when, without warning, Lalama and Hart leaped into "Buzzy," an energetic set closer.