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Evil Genius: Ralph Alessi and This Against That at Towson University, Sept. 16

September 20, 2010

Ralph Alessi is an avant-gardist who’s not afraid of beauty. As the jazz trumpeter led his This Against That quintet at Towson University Thursday, he was willing to go anywhere the music led him, including the one area jazz radicals often shy away from: passages of gorgeous harmony.

Alessi, a tall, slender man with a rising forehead and a silver horn, began the concert with an isolated, descending trumpet figure that was answered by Drew Gress’ bowed bass, Andy Milne’s plinking piano, and Mark Ferber’s swirling brushes. The tempo was patient, but there was a disquieting edginess to the disconnected motifs. Slowly but surely, though, Alessi, with help from tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, began to fill in the pauses between his phrases. As he did, a warm ballad melody gradually emerged, a satisfying balm to what had gone before.

The tune was “Platform Velvet” from the group’s 2007 album, Look, which featured Ravi Coltrane instead of Malaby on tenor. The quintet unveiled three newer tunes from its next album, tentatively titled Halves and Wholes and scheduled for early 2011. “Playing for Ashcroft” and “Evil Genius” both took their titles from Alessi’s reaction to the last Republican administration and both featured his angriest, most aggressive blowing of the night. The first began with a New Orleans parade march, then segued into the kind of mathematical counterpoint that Alessi learned from his former mentor, Steve Coleman. The tension built and built until the leader released it in a bravura cadenza.

The third tune from the next disc was “A Dollar in Your Shoe,” a brisk, darting number that subsided into contemplative passages, only to rouse itself into a romp again. Near the end, a lovely, unaccompanied duet between Alessi and his ponytailed bassist gathered momentum till it picked up Ferber, then Milne, and finally Malaby before sprinting home. On the unrecorded ballad “Good Boy,” Alessi introduced a strong romantic theme that made good use of the warm, full bottom of Malaby’s tenor.

Alessi’s connection to Towson University is Gress, an alumnus. The bassist is also featured on Alessi’s latest release, Cognitive Dissonance, which features pianist Jason Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits (and Milne on two tracks). It’s one of the year’s most stimulating jazz albums, because Alessi is not afraid to take the music out but neither is he afraid to bring it back home again.