Ralph Alessi interview

From 2013. ‘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 …

Published: 13 Nov 2019. Updated: 4 years.

From 2013. ‘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.

Photo: John Rogers/ECM


Kandace Springs interview

From 2018. Squeezed in before a television interview and a dash through traffic earlier running a little late Kandace Springs was sitting in the sunny afternoon chatting enveloped by the comforting hubbub of a friendly Haggerston cafe in the east …

Published: 13 Nov 2019. Updated: 9 months.

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From 2018. Squeezed in before a television interview and a dash through traffic earlier running a little late Kandace Springs was sitting in the sunny afternoon chatting enveloped by the comforting hubbub of a friendly Haggerston cafe in the east end of London.

Kandace was a protégée of Prince whose ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’ crops up in conversation later. Surely a textbook case of the need to sit to the end of the credits as they roll at the movies rather than making for the exits. While she had gone to Paisley Park at the request of the Purple One she did not know this quietly proud ‘Mary’ until Spike Lee’s extraordinary BlacKkKlansman came out. “OMG,” she says recalling her reaction.

The film score was composed and orchestrated by Terence Blanchard, the New Orleanian jazz bandleader composer trumpeter who guested on the Nashville twentysomething Springs’ Soul Eyes.

Nina Simone is more the underscore for this conversation, “the role model,” Kandace comments. Ellington by contrast like Nina is not about the past because the Washingtonian is as most jazz people know the present wrapped up in the future and she is working on an Ellington project which is news.

First the touring, a lot of touring and maybe a little collaboration… as Kandace was off to see Jamie Cullum later in the day.

Plucked thanks to Gregory Porter from obscurity she supported the blesséd one at the Albert Hall her first record Soul Eyes was a head turner to say the least. The Billie Holiday pianist Mal Waldron’s jazz standard and title track was reborn. Kandace was ahead of the zeitgeist. Next year because the signs are that we will all be mad about Mal, it may finally arrive Kandace having paved the way. Marlbank understands from someone familiar with the project that Free At Last, an extremely rare record complete with unheard tracks, will be released for the first time in decades, approaching 50 years old since it was released.

All sorts of people these days come knocking on her door to collaborate including Jamie (‘Human’) Hartman and she says she is also a “hybrid” singer meaning she can sing other things that are not jazz and often does. She flew to Los Angeles after her managers set the idea in motion that they work together by scratching a creative itch on the part of her team to add just one more song to Indigo.

Starting work they however hit the wall. Then Hartman heard her playing from Liszt’s ‘Liebestraüme’ and he said just keep doing that. Indicating what he then added she sings the line into my phone ‘don’t you breakdown on me’ pitched high in her range the melody line containing a tricky chromatic leap and right at the start of the song into the bargain, at the heart of the caring pleading of ‘Breakdown’. The line arrests you. Or take her version of ‘People Make the World Go Round’ on the new record where she provides such motion and poise. She tells me she was doing a gig with hip-hop supergroup August Greene not so long ago and did the Stylistics song there and then. Genre just melts in her hands and you could say the same about Gregory Porter and Diana Krall, another of her early favourites.

The way Indigo is produced arrows knowingly raining in on several targets and not as glossy and mainstream as Larry Klein’s who nonetheless achieved a lot on Soul Eyes this is a mass market aimed style still, and the stakes are getting higher, the possibility of failure greater.

There is a lot of musicianship sprinkled throughout reassuringly meaning that Indigo is not at all gimmicky because musicianship is the polar opposite of faddy novelty. The human interest story is the presence of Kandace’s dad, Scat, on ‘Simple Things,’ and which delivers an effortless sounding level of persuasion and finds all the space in the world and lets the song hang in the air doted upon by father and daughter yet avoiding sentimentality by providing a complex understanding based on rapport.

Kandace is not the new Norah Jones because she is not the new anyone. Her tack is different. She does not emphasise the tragic song, the mournful; her positivity comes free inside the groove steered impressively by August Greene drummer Karriem Riggins, an approach that underpins her blues and versatility and the other inputs that she picks up from soul. Intimacy calls most, however, as ‘Unsophisticated’ proves, Roy Hargrove going ever deeper than he did on his version of Pat Metheny’s ‘Always and Forever’ on Moment to Moment — to my mind his biggest ballad achievement on record to date.

Her “role model” as she describes it on Indigo is Nina Simone and you can get the connection straight away. Because, like the time before Nina was Nina and was Eunice Waymon she plays piano just as well, no exaggerating, and she sings as naturally as breathing but in a very different style. I cannot help thinking given that the future dreaming of her say mining southern soul-gospel tinted affirmation might suggest a treatment of Candi Staton’s ‘I’ll Sing a Love Song To You’.

Kandace met Don Was through her producers and managers, Evan Rogers, who sings backing vocals a bit on the record, and Carl Sturken, who contributes some bass. El presidente Under the Red Sky / Voodoo Lounge producer Was returned her label Blue Note to the heights that Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff built up to be almost destroyed by the cultural vandalism Liberty ushered in eventually saved by Bruce Lundvall. Since the Was (Not Was) bassist took over the reins from the Brucester who before his retirement got lucky to secure the label’s future as Norah Jones struck multi-, multi-, platinum with Come Away With Me. Was has brought a lot of veterans back to the label who are nearly all instrumentalists (Wayne Shorter top of the tree) but vocals now have a significant place thanks to Gregory Porter, from Liquid Spirit on and Kandace augmenting the roster.

“Carl is a big jazz head, and he has a vast collection of songs. My dad gave me a Nina Simone album and a Diana Krall record when I was young — and I always wanted to play jazz.”

She loves ‘Wild is the Wind’ and ‘I Put a Spell on You’ and hopes to keep on touring and promoting the record and will be playing London with a band that she tells me will have Connor Parks on drums, Chris Gaskell, bass — both from the NYC band For Trees and Birds. She also says that we are “working on trying to get guitarist Jesse [‘Don’t Know Why’] Harris — maybe, maybe, maybe.”

As for Karriem he is “very hands on” as a producer. “‘Simple things’,” Kandace says had “dad add his vocal part” to the tune laid down. Songs were “sitting on the shelf” and she gave them to Karriem. He added drums and brought in the erstwhile Branford Marsalis bassist Robert Hurst and Anthony Wilson both now like Karriem with Diana Krall.

As for Duke Ellington she reveals details of a project involving Karriem again and Bob Hurst, a little trio.

“I learnt a lot of Ellington songs in my teens, so many favourites… ‘Solitude’, ‘Sophisticated Lady’… and we do have a ‘Lush Life’ — Karriem accompanied myself singing. We are waiting to put that out.”

Her big hope, and it doesn’t matter she says if it is old school, new school, is for a perfect performance as long as the song is “from your soul.” SG