INTERVIEW: Ralph Alessi (UK dates with Ravi Coltrane – Dorking 15 May, Belfast 16 May)

Ralph Alessi
Photo credit: John Rogers/ ECM

“To take responsibility for the music. Assimilate it to the point where you are almost breathing it! And then be creative at all times in order to keep the music flowing and alive,” RALPH ALESSI explains here the essential message he gives to students.  

The San Francisco-born, New York-based trumpet player is on tour with ‘This and That’, featuring Ravi Coltrane, Andy Milne, John Hébert and Mark Ferber. They have two UK dates on their tour, in Dorking on Tuesday 15 May and in Belfast on 16 May. Interview with Kathryn Shackleton:

LondonJazz News: What are your earliest musical memories?

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Ralph Alessi: Probably listening to my father play the trumpet and my mother sing. We had music around the house 24/7. (My brother is a classical trombonist as well). My earliest memories of music that I really liked was by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. My brother and I would dance to it. I also loved listening to Top 40 radio and especially R&B music like Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind and Fire.

LJN: Which musicians or other influences have had the most impact on your playing?

RA: Steve Coleman had a big influence on my playing and composing. I was fortunate to play with him for about six years. I would include on that list Clifford Brown, Don Cherry, Kenny Wheeler, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Paul Smoker, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Morton Feldman, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. I could go on and on but these are the ones that first come to mind.

LJN:  How did you put together your current ‘This Against That’ band?

RA: This band starting coming together around 2002 in bits and pieces. Ravi Coltrane and I have known each other for many years, first meeting at California Institute of the Arts where we were students of Charlie Haden. Andy Milne and I met at the Banff Summer Jazz camp and then played together in Steve Coleman’s band. Drew Gress [the band’s bassist though John Hébert is playing the UK dates] I met playing with Uri Caine many years ago and Mark Ferber is somebody that I had heard play and really liked this playing. It was pretty organic as is often the case when bands are formed.

LJNWhat are the differences for you when you are working as a leader or as a sideman or a collaborator?

RA: Obviously as a leader I have the final say and can largely fuel the direction of the music. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I’m very dependent on my sidemen to bring forth ideas in a spontaneous fashion in order to make the music happen. And given that, when I’m a sideman I know that it is my responsibility to understand and interpret the music from a personal and expressive place. So both experiences interface with each other.

LJN:  How do you compose a new piece and how does it develop as you play it live?

RA: I usually start with something that resonates with my ears and go from there. Then I can wrestle with it for a while until I start hearing it as a piece of music. Sometimes I put things away for years until I start hearing the piece open into something else. And then when I come back to a composition, I’ll hear it in a completely different context than I did when the process started. But, yes, often times the piece evolves as we play it so on this tour I look forward to that happening. Sometimes, the tempo of the piece changes radically or the form evolves when things are added or subtracted. But, it’s music for improvisers so it’s not done until they start playing it!

LJNAs a teacher, what do you aim to impart to students?

RA: To take responsibility for the music. Assimilate it to the point where you are almost breathing it! And then be creative at all times in order to keep the music flowing and alive.

LJN:  If you had not been a musician, what career do you think you would have pursued?

RA: Being a psychologist. I love understanding how people’s minds work. Or as a professional basketball general manager. I think I’d be good at it. Then again…

LJN:  What should UK audiences expect from your forthcoming gigs?

RA: We’ll be playing new music for my next record on ECM which we will be recording at the end of the tour!

Kathryn Shackleton is programmer and booker at Watermill Jazz in Dorking

Ralph Alessi will be appearing with ‘This and That’, featuring Ravi Coltrane, Andy Milne, John Hébert and Mark Ferber 

DATES: Watermill Jazz, Dorking on Tuesday 15 May
Black Box, Belfast on Wednesday 16 May

LINK: Ralph Alessi website 
Ralph Alessi artist page at ECM Records
Jim Hart writes about Ralph Alessi from 2010

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