On Thursday night, Sept. 19, the Conservatory hosted a guest recital featuring Ralph Alessi and This Against That in Harper Hall. The quintet included Alessi himself on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone, Andy Milne on piano, Drew Gress on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. Alessi has composed several other albums through the years, often including the popular Ravi Coltrane on saxophone.
After walking on stage, Alessi announced that they were going to be playing a selection of songs off his recently released album, “Imaginary Friends.” The group opened up with “Fun Room.” It started off with an upbeat, almost chaotic melody line by Alessi, accompanied nicely by Ferber on drums. Later on, Milne joined in with a similarly timed line on piano. Eventually, the whole group had joined in with these almost frantic phrases, all doing their own thing but somehow making it come together very well. Then Irabagon soloed in one of his several impressive improvisations of the night, adding yet another layer to the sound. The energy was always high, as though it were right on the edge of something. This all came to an end with an abrupt stop which worked surprisingly well with all the energy they had built up.
The second tune started with a more eerie tone than the first. Milne stepped away from conventional playing and started messing with the inside strings of the piano. This gave certain notes a different timbre than the rest which resonated well with the mood of the song. Alessi then joined in with some high-pitched squeals, adding to what Milne was laying out. Then Irabagon came out with his own thing, experimenting by just blowing air through his horn and using the keys as a sort of percussion instrument.
The group then played “Improper Authorities,” starting out with a lively bass solo by Gress. What really got the audience going, though, was their fourth tune. It started slower than the rest of the pieces from the set, but it still reigned true to Alessi’s off-kilter rhythms and unique melody pairings. This song exemplified the quintet’s ability to blend their sound. It was as though they were making all of their instruments melt together into this otherworldly being that had its own way of speaking. It was rarely just one player or sound leading the pack. But when there was, it was really Irabagon who was giving the room life. He had a clear connection to his tenor, and it revived the whole room whenever he started playing. All the jazz fans in the crowd reacted very well to this tune and Irabagon. It was the only song that moved them so much as to start cheering while the music was still playing.
This concert was just another testament to music being a special language. Each musician is speaking through their instruments to one another, communicating on a seemingly spiritual level. Witnessing that kind of communication live is a special experience for everyone in the room. Ralph Alessi’s music is available on Spotify and YouTube to those readers who are interested in taking a listen.