In 2016, the Colorado-based tenor saxophonist Dominic Lalli stood onstage at Lollapalooza, playing thick, funky lines with his electronic-music act Big Gigantic. Red Hot Chili Peppers played the same night; Radiohead performed the evening prior. Most jazz musicians do not find themselves in this position. But Lalli is nothing if not versed in the ways of swing, and it shows on A Blind Man’s Blue, the first jazz LP from the saxophonist. Released in July and featuring heavyweights like drummer Rudy Royston and trumpeter Ron Miles, the focused but ebullient album stretches from Gershwin and Miles Davis to Lalli’s own intense originals. It’s all a million miles from the sound of Big Gigantic, but there are many routes to the same destination.
Recorded roughly a decade ago with an estimable band of Coloradans Lalli nicknamed the Bluebird Quintet—pianist Eric Gunnison, bassist Bijoux Barbosa, Royston, and either Greg Gisbert or Miles on trumpet—A Blind Man’s Blue sat on the shelf for good reason: Big Gigantic was blowing up, and it needed the saxophonist’s full attention. But when 2020 reared its ugly head, there was no longer anything standing between Lalli and Blue.
“When COVID hit, it’s the first thing that came to my mind: ‘I gotta finish this,’” Lalli remembers. “’Cause I never got the time to mix it and master it. In the past 10 years or whatever since we recorded that, I had been working on sound design and mixing—all kinds of stuff on my computer. So I took the stems and I mixed and mastered it myself. I was like, ‘Okay, I have everything I need, so let me just go in and do this.’”
Though there’s nary a hint of electronic music on Blue—the session is almost entirely acoustic—Lalli sees his harmonic concept as a through line from the project to Big Gigantic. “A lot of the stuff on the Bluebird Quintet, it’s just minor chords,” he explains. “Not a lot of ii-V-Is and standard type of changes. It’s more R&B changes, with some different substitutions in there. And that’s more like my style with Big Gigantic. That kind of vibe.”
Royston, who moved from Denver to New York shortly after Lalli made the opposite trip in 2005, remembers being impressed by the saxophonist’s cutting-edge ideas. And he looks back on the Blue studio sessions as a challenge.
“I remember it was easy for him, [but] those tunes were kind of hard for me then,” Royston recalls. “He had been in New York, so he had a different aesthetic about the music and I was like, ‘That’s really hard, that little 7/8 bar.’ Now it’s super-easy. But then, I thought, when he played, ‘Man, this is really cool to play with this cat who’s … on a different level.’ It was what I had been looking for in Denver for a long time.”
Originally from Las Vegas, Lalli did his undergrad at Northern Arizona University. From there, it was off to Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Bob Mintzer and Dave Liebman. The latter saxophonist provided a welcome reality check.
“Liebman is just a no-nonsense guy,” Lalli says. “I mean, if you suck, he’ll be like, ‘Dude, you suck.’ There’s no fluffing. The amount of love is huge, but he’s a super-real guy. We started our two-year program with Coltrane substitutions over pedals. Some schools, that’s like the last day of class. That was our first day. So we got to all kinds of crazy intervallic improvising, and these triple triads, extending the chord knowledge even further. Which was really hip. By the time I left New York, I was getting a lot more into free music and just different kind of playing. A lot of it because of Liebman, for sure.”
Lalli sees a silver lining to everything that’s happening right now. Not only was he able to finish and release A Blind Man’s Blue, but there’s a follow-up jazz album on the horizon. The saxophonist advises taking advantage of these days.
“The times that we live in always affect the music that’s made,” he says. “I think it’s especially important for musicians to really hunker down and use this time to take their music to a new level and express what they’re feeling through their music. Because it’s worth it, and so many amazing things can come of it.”