I am on the new BoltBus back to Boston after a couple of delightful, sunny days in New York. The highlight, musically, was bouncing across the Village to see two of my favorite trumpet players, Ralph Alessi with his band This Against That at the Jazz Gallery, and Ron Miles with the Bill Frisell Quintet at the Vanguard. Both shows were better than solid, both well attended, and they offered a remarkable study in contrasts.
Ralph is one of my most important teachers, ever, from our time together at Eastman, which makes reviewing him difficult. He is a remarkable trumpeter, combining brilliant acrobatic technique with a compact, focused sound and a focus that keeps even the most outrageous trumpet feats from feeling like showboating. Last night he was workshopping some new music before a trip to Europe. The band was fantastic- the rhythm section of Drew Gress and Mark Ferber was a great study in contrasts, with Ferber's stacatto, hyperactive snare offset by Drew's huge sound and thick, careful bottom-heavy playing. Ravi Coltrane, who I haven't heard in years, sounded fantastic; his technique, always solid, is approaching superhuman, and his attention to motif and development reflects his dad's passion without ever sounding derivative. The four tunes had an open unfinished feel that sometimes offered pleasant surprises, and sometimes made transitions feel too long and aimless. Ralph's tunes are twisty, abstract and prickly; they force the listeners to pry their way into the structure rather than revealing themselves. Even the catchiest of the tunes had a twisty 4-3-3-4 beat structure, simple and thorny all at once.
By contrast, the Frisell quintet (Bill, Ron Miles, Tony Scherr, Chris Cheek, and Rudy Roystein) put everything out on the table like a picnic lunch. The last couple of times I've seen Frisell he's eschewed the looping, feedback-y solo turns everyone associates with him for very clear statements of very clear heads, here a tune from Blues Dream who's name I've forgotten, a bebop blues, "Sub-Conscious-Lee" with a wonderful counterline, and a couple of old pop tunes I didn't recognize. Like Sonny Rollins' band, the quintet would play the head three or more times, drift into a solo, then play it again, rollicking through, everyone clearly enjoying it. Rudy Roystein, a Denver based drummer best known for his work on Ron's solo stuff, swung his tail off, simple and straightforward, light and clear while Tony Scherr provided his usual huge bottom of the band.
For me, the high point was Ron's playing. I am an unabashed fan from when I first heard him on Bill's quintet record, through his solo work (though the Stone/Blossom record was uneven). A friend who studied with him said he talks incessantly about clarity, and it's obvious in how he plays. It's clear hearing him that, like Ralph, he can do just about anything on the trumpet, but he is rarely elliptical, sometimes rolling a single motif through two or three choruses of a tune, just letting it swing.