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Ralph Lalama: Steppin' Out, Steppin' Forward

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

Ralph Lalama

"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 interaction—the 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 soothing—not 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 now—the 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 production—that'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.

Ralph Lalama"Today, everybody seems like they're writing all kinds of hard shit and what they're playing over it isn't that—it'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 that—simple, 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 it—not 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 Getz there. Miles Davis. Chick Corea. Herbie Hancock. Freddie Hubbard. Junior Cook. Sonny Stitt. It was a great club—six 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 age—14, 15, 16—we 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."

Ralph LalamaAbout rock music, he explains, "James Brown was so swinging to me. I liked The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. That was about it. All of that other music, I couldn't use. Cream and all that stuff, The Who—that didn't make any sense. So I got deeper into jazz then because I wasn't diggin' what was happening with my colleagues. My friends and what they listened to—I didn't like it. It wasn't swinging. James Brown was killin.' The other stuff was too oom-pah, oom-pah for me," he says with a chortle.

"As I got older, I heard Trane: 'What the hell is this?' Sonny Rollins too. I remember this guy turned me onto A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957), Sonny Rollins playing trio. I was mesmerized. The saxophone's supposed to sound like this? That was it. Forget it, I'm done," he says with respect, adding gleefully, "Life's over as I know it."

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