An Educational Conversation With Jazz Trumpeter and Teacher Ralph Alessi
Trumpeter Ralph Alessi has carved out an excellent reputation for himself since moving from California to New York in 1991. His music tends to walk a fine line between outright avant-garde and modern bebop, creating challenging music that never loses a sense of swing or groove. This is once again apparent on the brand-new 'Cognitive Dissonance,' his seventh album as a leader. When not helming his own small groups, he can be found playing with Ravi Coltrane, Uri Caine, Don Byron, Fred Hersch or Steve Coleman. The son of a classical trumpeter and someone who has studied music extensively, Alessi also spends a lot of time teaching at New York University and at the Center for Improvisational Music, which he founded. With this drive to impart some wisdom, or to facilitate students finding it on their own, I thought it'd let this educator speak in his own words.
I'm a fan of slow, spooky tunes, and I'm enjoying 'Sir' from the new album.
That's actually the second version of that. I did one three years ago for the album 'Look,' which has a version of that with a quintet. The duo version with [pianist] Andy Milne from this album was recorded about the same time because we'd been doing it that way on the road. I enjoy playing duo with Andy, so it was a no-brainer.
The material from this record has been around for a while.
[Chuckles] I have a bad habit of sitting things. The last record I released was 'Open Season,' and I recorded it several years ago. I wasn't sure I wanted to release either one, but they both grew on me. I think this will be the last time I do that. From here on, I'll try and release things that were recorded at least within the last few years of the release date. The album coming out next year will have been recorded three years ago, which isn't too bad.
Why hold onto things? Are you your own worst critic?
That is a significant part of it. There was a spirit to the session that was great, and obviously great playing with them. That was captured, so, yeah, I can be a little bit of a perfectionist at times. It's kind of silly that I put myself through this every time. I have an old student who is a musician and he said to me, Just put it all out!" It kind of sobered me up a bit. It made me think about why I was even questioning the validity of the material.
Isn't perfectionism sort of counter to the concept of improvisation?
Maybe that's not the right word to use. It's captured on the new record as well as most of the other ones that things are a little on the edge. I don't like to overrehearse groups. This one was done with one rehearsal. It speaks to [the group's] ability to bring something to it right away. They were fearless and took chances, which is what I prefer. So yes, the idea of perfection in improvised music is quite different than how we usually use that word. I was finally able to get outside myself and I heard a lot of moments in the group that I was really proud of.
How do you tell that something is not working?
When everyone is overthinking. It's usually pretty clear when it's happening, but sometimes you just don't know. I know the kinds of recording experiences I don't like, and that's when there is a nervousness to the session and you have to do a lot of takes. I generally like to do a couple of takes and move on. The quicker it takes normally means the better it sounds.
Has teaching music made you a better musician?
Yes. It has definitely helped my understanding the concepts of improvisation and composition: always having to think about it, coming up with new ways to talk about it and talking about something that transcends words. I'm also really inspired by young musicians. I started teaching at the Eastman School of Music in 1995, and right around that time my music really started to take off. I think teaching helped facilitate that growth.
You have also spent a lot of time in school as a student. What was the best piece of advice that you got?
[Long pause] I don't know if it was anything in particular. My life changing experience happened at the California Institute of the Arts. I think it was the spirit there. I had this appreciation for being a part of the community, from the teachers down to the students. There wasn't a lot of lecturing. The teachers there sort of got out of the way and allowed us to inspire ourselves to play music and learn more about it.
How are things at the Center for Improvised Music?
We're just finishing up this year's workshop. Next year marks our tenth year and we are really excited about that.