Ralph Alessi: Imaginary Friends

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Trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s first ECM quartet album, Baida (2013) was a beautiful but tentative affair, his second Quiver (2016) more assured. But both felt as if he was slightly in awe of his new record label, perhaps also a tad too reticent in pushing himself forward. This confident third set, however, is a transformation, helped in part by the larger quintet format with which he has played since 2010. 

Alessi has known saxophonist Ravi Coltrane since they were students together in California in the late 1980s and they are a well-matched pair, Alessi’s conversational restraint balanced by the more assertive approach of Coltrane. Pianist Andy Milne, here making his ECM debut, is an equal contributor, his often minimal lines an echoing delight. 

The nine tracks are all of a kind, slow- to medium-paced spacious soundscapes played with quiet restraint. The opening “Iram Issela” – Ralph’s eight-year-old daughter’s name spelt backwards – is a bitter-sweet opener, “Improper Authorities” is distinguished by Milne’s choppy riffs and the tonal interplay of Alessi and Coltrane, the austere “Pittance” enhanced by Milne’s prepared piano and then Alessi’s yearning solo. Best of all is the title track, a slow meditative piece where Alessi and Coltrane gently dance round each other in musical empathy in increasing ecstasy. The brief but romantic trumpet and piano duo of “Good Boy” ends the set in fine style.

A trumpet and saxophone quintet is hardly novel, but this fine line-up has produced something quite exquisite. At last, Alessi has found his true voice.

Discography
Iram Issela; Oxide; Improper Authorities; Pittance; Fun Room; Imaginary Friends; Around The Corner; Melee; Good Boy (60.36)
Alessi (t); Ravi Coltrane (sps, ts); Andy Milne (p); Drew Gress (b); Mark Ferber (d). Pernes-les-Fontaines, France, May 2018.
ECM 770 1817