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The Brilliant, Contradictory World of Ralph Alessi

Studying contrasts

Ralph Alessi (l.) and Fred Hersch
Ralph Alessi (r.) with Ravi Coltrane at the 2010 Angel City Jazz Festival
Drew Gress, Nasheet Waits, Jason Moran and Ralph Alessi in October 2012

There isn’t a sign over his head, or even a telltale pattern of behavior, to mark Ralph Alessi as a stealth contrarian. A trumpet player of unflappable skill and a composer of terse implication, he doesn’t come across in person as the type to sail into a headwind or thrash against the undertow. He’s soft-spoken, self-analytical, a good listener. Maybe you could picture him sending a strongly worded e-mail. But behind Alessi’s quiet composure lurk firm opinions and an urge to subvert expectations, even if-make that especially if-those expectations mostly reside within himself.

Consider the titles of some of the albums he has released under his name, each one framing a dialectic in miniature. Vice & Virtue. This Against That. Cognitive Dissonance. We might as well include Only Many, a gem of an album just out on CAM Jazz, credited to Alessi and pianist Fred Hersch. Those titular phrases aren’t the expressions of a mind at rest. Tension holds attraction for Alessi, and it seems to work for him, though a distinction should be drawn between tension and conflict.

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