Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bob Doran Interviews Ralph Alessi

Bob kindly sends us this very interesting interview with our next guest.


A conversation with Ralph Alessi

The short bio on the website for trumpeter/composer/educator Ralph Alessi (www.ralphalessi.com) jumps straight to 1991, when he became "an active member of the New York jazz and improvised music scene as both sideman and leader."
He'd moved to the Big Apple from the Bay Area that year after growing up in San Rafael. His father was a freelance classical trumpet player who'd worked for the Metropolitan Opera and his mother was an opera singer before they relocated to the West Coast.

So you grew up in Marin County and left there to go to college?

I went to couple of different colleges and ended up at CalArts in Los Angeles. [Among his teachers was bassist Charlie Haden.] I got a couple of degrees there [in trumpet and bass]. And right after that I moved to New York.

What were you looking for in New York?

It was more of a feeling that I didn't have a choice. I had to move to New York because of the experience I had at CalArts; in particular I'd developed relationships and friendships, musical relationships with individuals like Ravi Coltrane, Scott Colley, Michael Caine, Peter Epstein and others. They'd either moved to New York before me or followed me out there. There was this feeling that it wouldn't make any sense to not continue what we'd started. And obviously there were other benefits to moving to New York, although I was a little reluctant at making that move. I was a little intimidated by the idea of living in New York, but I felt like I didn't have a choice, so I did it. And I'm still here.

When you moved there did you fall into the M-Base Collective?

I'd been a student of Steve Coleman at the jazz program at Banff [Canada]. Steve was one of the teachers there. About three years later he called me to play on an overdubbing session for one of his records. Then maybe a year after that I toured with him, and I continued playing with him for five or six years. But by that time the M-Base Collective wasn't really a collective any more. All those people were doing their own thing by that point.

Would you say the M-Base philosophy informed the way you evolved musically?

The M-Base Collective wasn't really a collective like the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago]. The AACM had very defined tenants and ideas about what that was about. To my knowledge, the M-Base Collective was more just individuals who were playing together in those days. I was influenced by the music Steve was making and Greg Osby and others, but mostly Steve. I was into his music prior to meeting him. There's no doubt being around him and playing with him was important — he was a master musician. I was influenced by how he played, how he composed music, and also how he led a band. I liked his aesthetic for being a band leader.

Was he a model for the way you lead a band?

He's not the only one. Also there was the way Miles Davis led a band; Uri Caine is another who I played with a lot. It's basically hands off. You basically leave it up to the individuals, assuming that they will have the responsibility to learn the music and bring something to it. If that doesn't happen, then you call someone else. That's as opposed to 'You need to do this and you need to do that.' I'm more into leaving it up to the players.

So you present a composition and assume the players will make their own contribution to it?

Within reason. There are definitely moments where you want to be more active in the direction of the music, but I rarely do that. I call people that I know can bring something to the music in their own way. There's a process: You want people to bring forth their ideas instead of demanding immediate results. It's also about being accepting of different ideas rather than being rigid about your own ideas.

How do those ideas carry over into what you do as a teacher at the School for Improvisational Music? [the music school in Brooklyn founded by Alessi]

I would say that same kind of thinking is pretty consistent across the board. A lot of people involved [in the school] play with each other and they have shared sensibilities about how to play music, how it feels.

How do you teach improvisation? Is it something that can be taught as a process?

Sure, it can be taught.

How do you go about it?

First of all you have to inspire the students to investigate the music, investigate the vast resources that exist, especially nowadays. You learn so much just listening to recordings. I know that at least half of my own education was just listening, listening to all of the usual suspects, all the people what are part of the canon, the usual suspects being Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, on and on, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins.
That music is just so rich; I continue to listen and learn from it myself. A lot of it is listening and being exposed to those ways of making music. The other part is encouraging people to play by ear, to play not so much from their intellect, but from what they're hearing, with more importance put on listening and ways of making music in the moment and the strategies that have to do with that.
Of course theory and harmony and things like that — the nuts and bolts of music — are part of the equation as well, but we deemphasize those things.

Didn't you initially learn music from your father?

I did. I took lessons from him for about 10 years, but in terms of the music that turned me on, it probably started with pop music of the day, but also my brother's record collection. It went from there. I really enjoyed playing the trumpet and I enjoyed how the trumpet fit into classical music, but eventually that kind of faded away as I had more experiences making music where you played more of an active part, as either an improviser or a composer. In particular the experiences I had at CalArts made it clear that I wanted to go in that direction. Once I moved to New York, I had made that commitment.

Do you think of yourself as a composer?

Not primarily, although improvisation is composition in real time.

You're a spontaneous composer...

In many ways. To me it's using the same creative energy. Both are very creative endeavors. So I guess I'm both an improviser and a composer...

And a teacher...

I enjoy teaching. I learn from it. It really gets you to think about your ideas in a deeper way. And I don't have a set way of doing it; a lot of times I'm improvising while I teach.

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