Ralph Alessi / Modular Theatre
Recorded at Cornelia St. Cafe (NYC) on January 10, 2002 (3,6,7,11), Off-Bet Tracking (Astoria, NY) on April 13, 2002 (1,2,5,9) and on April 14, 2002 (4,8,10).
Ralph Alessi is well established as one of the very best progressive jazz trumpet players and composers. While elusive as a melodic notesmith, it is the sheer intelligence of his music that is so thought-provoking and singularly unique. In tandem with saxophonist Peter Epstein, Alessi has concocted some truly original, spectacular music over the years, and this recording with his ensemble Modular Theatre stays on that not so straight or narrow path, weaving in complex modes and harmonies that demand the challenged listener to pay close attention. The difference from previous recordings is Alessi's use of a vocalist, but in this case not a singer. Prose and poetry from Will Jennings is at the center of this largely instrumental music, shading but not necessarily enhancing the existentialism of what goes beyond theater or drama. While the words of Jennings are down in the mix, the music shines brightly as themes are extrapolated ad infinitum. In the more conventional sense, "Conversations with a Circus Midget" is a free bop discourse with Jennings going at it forcefully. The mix of poetry with clarion horn and African drumming identifies "Connecting Dots," and its more overdubbed conclusive companion, "Connecting Dots, Pt. 2." Strummed groovy bass and the horn tandem of Alessi alongside Epstein coalesce in cool, tuneful, and smart tones during "Video," while a deliberate 5/4 ostinato line buoys John Coltrane's obscure "Tranesonic" with a somber Jennings vocal line. Either bassists Ben Street or Mark Helias, and drummers Mark Ferber or Gerald Cleaver split duties on select tracks, adding to the flexible elasticity of the quirky rhythmic base. The Helias/Cleaver combine is impressive in supporting jumpy, lilting repetition or interplay during "Good Fever," while Street and Ferber are underneath the spoken word, rap-inflected thoughts on "Morbid Curiosity," a more contemporary jazz idea with the singing soprano sax of Epstein and Alessi's brass mixing and matching feelings with the vocalist. Two duets between the front liners present alternately long, linear, sonic straight lines for "Panoramic," or the skyward vision of "Fear." There's a faux waltz constructed on "Slow Freefall" that merges from a duet with Alessi and Helias, with Cleaver's soulful drum brushing to a free but passive Epstein in late, as if depicting a parachute-less descendence to Earth. This 2002 recording was not released until 2008, clearly a project Ralph Alessi had to sell to someone with the strong belief that this music was completely valid for the marketplace. Listeners who can get beyond the trappings of Jennings will be rewarded to hear these tracks in an unadulterated form, but it will not be for everyone's taste. Instrumentally it is a shining example of how the downtown New York City scene has evolved into presentations of compelling new multimedia jazz that retains its integrity without any trendy concessions. Open Season - accented by its gamey deer-in-the-headlights graphic art design - comes recommended as an intriguing creative music effort.
Ben Street bass (tracks 1,2,5,9)
Mark Ferber drums (tracks 1,2,5,9)
Will Jennings voice (tracks 1,2,5,9,11)
Mark Helias bass (tracks 3,6,7,11)
Gerald Cleaver drums (tracks 3,6,7,11)
William Coltrane voice (track 8)
All Music Guide