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Ralph Alessi: Imaginary Friends (ECM)

A review of the trumpeter's album with Ravi Coltrane, Andy Milne, Drew Gress, and Mark Ferber

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Imaginary Friends by Ralph Alessi
Cover of Imaginary Friends by Ralph Alessi

The musical bond between trumpeter Ralph Alessi and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane is arguably developing into a rapport on par with the highest echelon of trumpet/tenor combinations. Not merely a strong frontline, they’re a unit that creates something greater than the sum of its parts. That power can be heard in “Iram Issela.” After Coltrane’s solo goes from thoughtful to fiery, stirring up the rhythm section, the combined horns create a natural phase-shifting that makes the simple melody sound twice as thick. During “Oxide” they leapfrog over one another, always leaving plenty of room and never tangling the other’s line. They also play parallel to one another in the title track, Alessi’s warm tone and Coltrane’s contemplative statements working separately until they unite on a high pitch.

Pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber—credited as This Against That on previous Alessi albums—also help to set the scene. Whether the music requires a subdued approach or something more aggressive (see “Melee,” where Coltrane shows off his skills on the rarely heard sopranino sax), the accompaniment adds the right amount of spark. The closing “Good Boy” is a sampler of Alessi’s best qualities. With little more than Milne’s accompaniment, the rubato melody shows off the trumpeter’s captivating tone, lyrical sense, and skill at quickly grabbing upper-register notes to add extra drama. All these traits are on display throughout Imaginary Friends (which also gets some of its warmth from Manfred Eicher’s wide production), but this brief final statement acts as a confirmation of what brought us here in the first place.

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Originally Published