A standout thing I’ve come to realize in sizing up Ralph Alessi’s ECM debut Baida is not just the record itself but the realization that this is the first Alessi-led album I’ve had the occasion to cover. After all, his notable associations with Steve Coleman, Ravi Coltrane, Drew Gress and Uri Caine, among others, have been part of a steadily rising career to this virtuosic trumpeter and composer; the release earlier this year of an album co-lead with Fred Hersch (Only Many)is a telling indication of the stature he’s attained lately. Baida confirms that stature.
For this project, Alessi convenes his quartet last heard on his Cognitive Dissonance (2010), completed by pianist Jason Moran, drummer Nasheet Waits and his ever-present bassist, Drew Gress. But with the move over to this elite jazz label, Alessi made Baida a more introspective, contemplative than Cognitive.
In a large way, Baida is how I’d imagine how sax great Charles Lloyd would make a record if he’d play trumpet instead. It’s not just because of the open airy atmosphere that ECM head honcho Manfred Eicher put into these recordings, or the simultaneously melodic and improvisational aspects of Alessi’s musician-friendly compositions. It’s also the crucial participation of Lloyd’s pianist, Jason Moran, who so adeptly shaped his own thoughtful approach to the piano perfectly around Lloyd’s and does so here with Alessi.
“Gobble Goblins” is a rhythmic shape that Alessi and Moran share in making, each taking turns peeling off that figure to construct eloquent (Alessi) and forceful (Moran) solos. With the tempo taken care of by the two, Waits charges ahead with his own propulsive improvising underneath. “In-Flight Entertainment” is a free jazz give-and-take with Alessi that is all emotion, feel and drama, where chops are only employed to meet those goals. But listen to how Maron snatches the harmonic narrative and runs off with it well into the solemn 11/1/10, with the ever-astute Waits in tow.
Gress, whose long association with Alessi and characteristic close listening makes him probably the only logical for this album. It’s those attributes that inform this incredibly twisting bass ostinato that adds definition to the wildly-weaving “Chuck Barris,” joining Waits’ syncopations with Moran’s fragmented statements. Alessi glides right over the restless trio but everyone is so in tune with each other, that a random punctuation or a sudden slow down is all done in perfect synchronicity. An astonishing performance.
The tender moments come from songs inspired by Alessi’s own family members: “Baida” is the word his young daughter uses for “blanket” and this sparse tune is blanketed by the carefully expressed delivery of Moran and Gress, and Alessi’s sumptuous, tortured, trumpet that’s barely there, but makes the most of its moments. “Maria Lydia” is dedicated to Alessi’s recently passed mother, a delicate tone poem with classical overtones, which is no coincidence since it was inspired by Stravinsky. Alessi’s tone is pure and emotional in the right measure.
As a meeting of brilliant performers, Baida scores. As a sympathetic rendering of Alessi’s fragile, searching and sometimes mysterious compositions, Baida scores again. As someone who has all facets of his artistry achieving at a high level, Alessi is impossible to ignore as a leader any longer.