“Ralph Alessi’s trumpet tone conveys a rounded luminescence, like the moon in full phase, and his technique is an astonishment of fluency”
Nate Chinen, The New York Times
Each of Ralph Alessi’s three prior leader recordings for the label – Baida (2013), Quiver (2016) and Imaginary Friends (2019) – garnered high international praise. The New York Times lauded the “elegant precision and power” of Baida, whereas Downbeat declared that with Quiver, Ralph had found “an ideal venue, his penchant for the oblique statement and ventilated ensemble nicely couched in a pristine recording and a magical ensemble.” In a rave review, The Guardian called Imaginary Friends “an elegant balance of poignant, playful original compositions and gracefully probing improve”. For It’s Always Now, however, the cards have been re-shuffled, as Ralph Alessi steps away from his familiar New York collaborators and goes on an entirely different adventure with fresh casting on every position. A change in the line-up naturally provokes a shift in the music, because, as Ralph points out, “anytime you play with new musicians with strong ‘voices’ such as these, it changes how you hear your music”.
“I moved to Switzerland in August of 2020”, Alessi explains, “and it gave me an opportunity to collaborate with a new mix of musicians who I hadn’t had the pleasure of playing with before. And I strongly believe in the benefit of change.”
Within change, here, also lies familiarity, for not everything about Ralph’s European quartet constellation is previously unexplored. The trumpeter’s partnership with pianist Florian Weber for instance goes back almost two decades, each having been part of the other’s group, and, more recently, Alessi played on Florian’s ECM recording Lucent Waters in quartet with Linda May Han Oh and Nasheet Waits. They have also extensively performed as a duo, and their special duo chemistry is showcased at various moments throughout the new album – “Hypgnagogic”, “Old Baby”, “Ire”, “Tumbleweed” and the title track all being improvised explorations tastefully delivered between the two. Ralph: “I love how Florian provokes me when I play with him. He is always pushing the envelope, helping create an atmosphere of chance taking in the music which definitely resonates with me.”
Drummer Gerry Hemingway and Ralph previously played together only once several years back, while the session for It’s Always Now marks the very first meeting between the trumpeter and bassist Bänz Oester. All three of them are presently active educators in Switzerland – Ralph teaches at the University of the Arts Bern, Gerry at the Lucerne School of Music and Bänz at the City of Basel Music Academy. From the deeply grooving undercurrent of “Migratory Party” over the angular tangle of “Everything Mirrors Everything” to what feels like that composition’s contra-fact in “Hanging By A Thread”, there is little to nothing that would suggest this being the group’s first encounter. Movements are fluent, counterpoint is intuitive and whichever path Ralph’s serene trumpet lines choose, the remaining musicians follow, always finding unexpected but complementing figures.
Ralph insists how Bänz and Gerry “have such a strong vibe playing with each other”, and it’s no surprise, as the bassist and drummer have partnered up regularly for over two decades and still frequently play together today – their most prominent outlet being the WHO trio featuring pianist Michael Wintsch, with whom they’ve released five albums going back to 1999. Within the ensemble sound of Ralph’s quartet, the bassist and drummer’s parts contract and expand gracefully and in accordance with Ralph and Florian’s deft instrumental flourishes, ranging from minimalist designs and short improvisations to extended forms with polyphonous subjects and idiosyncratic structures.
These contrasting idioms manifest through juxtapositions of songs like “Residue” and “The Shadow Side”, the former a rhythmically sparkling platform for exuberant exchanges between the players, the latter an introspective, romantic investigation into dark lyricism – each voice on high alert. A similar analogy can be drawn for ”His Hopes, His Fears, His Tears” and “Portion Control”, two songs that have vastly different outlines but share a tendency towards abstraction and Ralph’s conceptional DNA.
Shedding light on his compositional process, Ralph says, “writing is always an intuitive exercise for me; In short, I’m trying to move the music from the abstract to a place of hearing. Some of the newer pieces on It’s Always Now were actually still coming into fruition during the session. That presents a challenge, to find the music while ‘under the gun’ but I am very pleased with the outcome of these emerging pieces.”
“It’s a step by step recording process creating the material and then seeing how it fits together. That’s also where the compelling sensibility of Manfred comes into play. He has an incredible knack for hearing the big picture.” It’s Always Now was recorded in June 2021 and produced by Manfred Eicher.