As a modern jazz sub-genre, the M-BASE movement of the mid- to late-80s seems to have had a bit of a ripple effect beyond the music of Steve Coleman, who conceived the term and remains the style’s main practitioner. The multi-layered, heavily syncopated polyrhythms and drawn-out, minor-keyed themes that characterize the style M-BASE are incredibly appealing and intellectually fascinating. Much the same can be said of Ralph Alessi’s music.
Alessi has been sideman in several of Steve Coleman’s various aggregations for the past decade or so. Coleman’s influence is palpable - though not overbearingly so - on his latest release, Look. Many of Alessi’s compositions are framed by complicated, asymmetric ostinati - played by bassist Drew Gress or pianist (and fellow Coleman sideman) Andy Milne - which drummer Mark Ferber fleshes out in a dizzying variety of subtle and funky ways. Four tracks (‘It’s Just A Toy’, ‘Look’, ‘Platform Velvet’, and ‘Old Beady Eyes’) feature guest soloist Ravi Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophone. Coltrane, who also toured with Alessi’s band following the release of ‘Look’, is perfect for this music. Like Alessi, he is a virtuoso whose improvisations are marked by a restless, searching energy.
Despite the cerebral tone of Alessi’s detailed and thoughtful compositions, the band imparts a playful, loose feeling to the music. Typically, the rhythm section often strays from the original ostinato pattern to give the piece a more spontaneous and playful feel. The tunes are mostly rather brief, and none even come close to wearing out their welcome. Though I've placed this CD in the 'avant garde' category, I can imagine many fans of fusion or more mainstream jazz styles coming away satisfied after listening to 'Look'.
Look is a wonderfully mixed bag of moods and approaches. Gentler, ballad-like, and sometimes spooky moods (‘Hands’, ‘Brown Hat’, ‘Words, Actions’, ‘Platform Velvet’) contrast with harder-hitting, rhythmically active pieces (‘Near Cry’, ‘It’s Just A Toy’, ‘At The Seams’, ‘Old Beady Eyes’), and oddly spacy meditations on rhythm or perhaps the lack thereof (‘The Tooth Fairy and Pistol Pete’, ‘Lap Nap’, ‘Look’, ‘Sir’). Alessi is quite adept at intertwining 2 or even 3 melodies - Bach-like - around trickily syncopated rhythms. None of this is cold or over-thought. Instead, Alessi presents us with an hour’s worth of wonderfully warm, human music. Intelligent, entertaining, and stimulating.