‘I mostly make music in an intuitive way with a dash of theoretical and conceptual stuff here and there’. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi talks to marlbank about Baida
First of all I’d like to clarify something. Is ‘Zone’ the track of yours on Selected Signs (on the disc called ‘VII’) the same take as title track ‘Baida’, possibly renamed?
Yes, ‘Zone’ was a working title at the time it appeared on Selected Signs. Soon after, it became 'Baida.'
What does the word “Baida” refer to or mean, and why choose it as the album title?
Baida is the word my two-and-a-half year-old daughter uses for her blanket. Obviously she’s been a huge part of my life and it seemed appropriate to give her a “shout out”. She is definitely in that music somewhere!
When did you first work with each of the musicians on Baida: Jason Moran, Drew Gress, and Nasheet Waits; and why choose these particular musicians for your first record as a leader on ECM?
I first played with Jason in Steve Coleman’s band in 1997 or so. With Drew, it was around 1999 playing with Uri Caine’s Goldberg Variations project. And regarding Nasheet, I played with him on our first gigs with Fred Hersch’s band at the Village Vanguard in 2000. The way the record happened was that someone from ECM (who loved the band) heard us at the Jazz Standard in 2010. The word got to Manfred Eicher and out of the blue I received an email saying that he wanted to record the band. That was a very happy day.
Can you describe your early experiences as an improviser going back to your California days?
My first introduction to what improvisation was, was from Ken Saul, an early private teacher who had transcribed a bunch of Clifford Brown solos. I remember being blown away when he told me that what he was playing was not written out and that he was “making it up.” So, I started messing around in my bedroom playing with Music Minus One records and recording and sequencing myself on my Juno 106 keyboard. However, my main focus then was learning the trumpet and jazz was merely a fun hobby. I didn’t really think seriously about it until much later.
Was there a point via a live music experience, listening to an album, or just something that happened in your life that made you wish to pursue a particular path in music?
I knew from early on that I would be a trumpet player. What I didn’t know until I attended California Institute of the Arts was that I would commit to a life playing creative music. This was a result of being surrounded by a bunch of amazing players and composers who in addition to inspiring me gave me a deeper level of confidence via constant encouragement. I do remember a life-changing moment during that time: I was rehearsing for someone’s school recital and something powerful happened in the music. Hard to describe, but it was a feeling of letting go, and from that the music felt and sounded different to me (maybe spiritual is too strong a word, or maybe it is appropriate when describing this). At that moment I knew I had to keep doing this and shortly after moved to New York.
Can you tell me a little about how Steve Coleman’s music has inspired you?
Steve’s music has always inspired me going back to the days before I played with him. The sound of it was always so intriguing from the rhythm (in particular) to the melodic material which expanded the idea of what a melody was. But for me the real inspiration came from the six years of playing with him. When you’re that close to a master musician, you can’t help but get better as an improviser, composer and teacher.
Do you think you are interested in music, like Coleman is, from a theoretical point of view as well as an empirical one?
I greatly admire big brained individuals like Steve, George Lewis, Henry Threadgill and probably every other member of the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. Their ideas are so thought provoking and they are able to masterfully talk about something (improvisation) that arguably transcends words. But with that said, I mostly make music in an intuitive way with a dash of theoretical and conceptual stuff here and there.
Tell me a little about the Center for Improvisational Music. On the CIM website there is an explanation: “We believe in providing awareness of this music and its creators, as well as helping individuals grow as creative beings through a better understanding of improvisation and creative music.” Why do you think there is a need for providing such an awareness, and how exactly do you filter improvisational music. For instance would you say the workshop experience is vital in this regard?
I think there are a lot of misnomers about all facets of jazz and how jazz musicians make music. This workshop is always a nice window into the inner workings and general creative process of how improvisers think and work. The nuts and bolts information students learn in school is important but I still think jazz is largely an oral tradition and at some point you have to learn it from the horse’s mouth.
I suppose recording throws up different challenges through time. Has your approach changed in terms of preparation since Hissy Fit?
No, I make records still the way I always have: get the right musicians, material that I want to record, record it and then figure out how it’s all going to fit together. I’ve never been one to have a concept first and then have it come to fruition from that idea. Although, as I get older I’d like to try something like that. I do have a few ideas for concept records.
Cognitive Dissonance is probably your best known record prior to Baida on this side of the Atlantic, certainly one of the most admired. Just an obvious question: but why call it “Cognitive Dissonance”, and how do you think your music has changed in the three intervening years since its release?
I’ve always been interested in psychology and especially conflicts in how people think. I guess in a broader sense, that title is about my interest in juxtaposing elements and forces in music and how they either work or don’t. I’m not sure my music has changed too much in the last three years. But I will say that doing a record for ECM produced by Manfred Eicher influenced how I was conceptualising this record on some level.
When you listen to Drew Gress play does it take it you back to your studies with Charlie Haden in any way?
Insofar as both are great bass players with beautiful sounds, yes.
How much does classical music figure in your life these days? As the son of classical musicians it must have been very present in your life at certain times.
Yeah, my father was a classical trumpet player, my mother an opera singer and my brother a trombonist (who plays principal in the New York Philharmonic). It was something else being in a house where at any given moment the whole family was practising at the same time (no exaggeration). Working at that music taught me a lot about the mechanics of playing the instrument, fundamental issues of musicality and how to practise (among other things). These days, that music is not part of my life the way it was before. My experiences trying to be a classical trumpet player are part of me and always will be. I say that with pride as I have tried to embrace everything that is a part of me musically.
Finally, turning to track titles there are some curious ones here on Baida. Can you provide a gloss to ‘Chuck Barris’, ‘Gobble Goblins’… and that date: ‘11/1/10’. Why is it significant?
No significance to 11/1/10 other than the date it was written. I named the second track Chuck Barris because I have an ever growing pride in being a product of the 70s. He was a paradoxical figure with a résumé like no other (i.e. game show creator and CIA operative!) And a good example of how colourful that decade was. ‘Maria Lydia’ was titled for my mother who passed away shortly after we recorded the album. But my titles are mostly nonsensical (i.e. ‘Gobble Goblins’). They are more for others to ponder I suppose. Hopefully the music makes the titles significant.
Ralph Alessi pictured top
above left Photos: John Rogers/ECM
Baida is released on 7 October