Monday, January 25, 2010

CD of the Week - "Ralph Lalama: The Audience"

CD of the Week
Ralph Lalama Quartet: "The Audience" (Mighty Queen) 2010

Release Date in the USA: January 26, 2010
Rating: ***** (performance) **** (sound quality)

Ever since arriving on the New York scene in the mid-1970s, tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama has been widely recognized as a Most Valuable Player. He's been a key soloist with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra for more than 25 years, and a member of Joe Lovano's Grammy-winning Nonet since its inception in 1999. But it was only in 2008 that Lalama made his first U.S. recording as a leader, the well-received "Energy Fields" for Mighty Quinn Productions.

Now he's produced a worthy follow-up, "The Audience," that will be released by Mighty Quinn on January 26. The new CD, produced by Jerry Roche, features Lalama's working piano-less quartet, his muscular tenor sound, and his uncompromising yet tradition-grounded approach to melodies and improvisation.

"He doesn't hide behind anyone else's ideas, and speaks the truth. He can't do anything else and I love him for that!" writes Joe Lovano in the new CD's booklet notes.

Of his simpatico quartet-mates -- guitarist John Hart, bassist Rick Petrone, and drummer Joe Corsello -- Lalama observes that "John is not only a great soloist, he's a great accompanist. And Rick and Joe just lay it down. It's easy to improvise over." The foursome have been working together off and on for the last several years, and made their debut on record with "Energy Fields."

Lalama's repertoire choices on "The Audience" are a savvy mix of jazz classics and lesser known standards, including Wayne Shorter's "Marie Antoinette" (first recorded by Wayne on Freddie Hubbard's 1961 LP "Ready for Freddie"), Duke Pearson's "Minor League" (a minor blues that first appeared on the 1964 Grant Green album "Solid"), and "Love Thy Neighbor," written by Mack Gordon & Harry Revel and a big hit for Bing Crosby in 1934, although introduced to the jazz world only in 1957 by John Coltrane's version. "Kiss and Run" (from the 1956 album "Sonny Rollins Plus 4" and now recreated as a samba) and "I'm an Old Cowhand" (from Rollins' 1957 date "Way Out West") are nods to the tenor titan, while the ballad "Portrait of Jennie," covered by Nat "King" Cole, Clifford Brown, Wes Montgomery, Oscar Peterson and Freddie Hubbard, to name a few, is dedicated to the memory of his mother, vocalist Jennie Lalama.

There's also a surprising jazzy take on Stevie Wonder's "Livin' for the City," transformed into a blues shuffle, with Lalama and Hart modulating up a third for each of their two solos apiece before returning to the original key for the out chorus. It's worth to note that the CD was recorded in a single session (on July 26, 2009) at the Ambient Recording Company in Stamford, Connecticut, under the aegis of producer Jerry Roche, with the musicians together in the same room, similar to the way the would setup to play a live gig in front of an audience. "Only a few baffles were used between instruments to create some isolation between the microphones," engineer Mark Conese comments. "This approach is similar to the way all recordings were made before the invention of multi-track recording. Where it differs is each of the eight mics used were recorded to their own track, enabling the musicians to have input on the final mix or balance of instruments. 32-bit 192kHz digital technology was used for recording and mixing. Vacuum tube mics and preamps as well as ribbon and modern condenser microphones were also employed, with no overdubs."
During the 1990s, Ralph Lalama made five highly-regarded albums under his own name for the Dutch Criss Cross label, beginning with "Feelin' and Dealin'" (1991); "Momentum" (1992), with Kenny Barron, which garnered a five-star review in the All Music Guide; and "You Know What I Mean" (1995). "Circle Line" (1997) earned four and a half stars in Down Beat and a spot in the magazine's "Top CDs of the Decade." The saxophonist's final Criss Cross project was "Music for Grown-Ups" (1999), with Richard Wyands, Peter Washington, and Kenny Washington.

Lalama has also performed and/or recorded with Carla Bley, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band (now the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra), the Joe Lovano Nonet (on three acclaimed Blue Note CDs), Carmen McRae, James Moody, Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, Mel Tormé, and his vocalist wife, Nicole Pasternak, among numerous others.

As a jazz educator, the Yonkers, New York resident has been an adjunct professor for the past 20 years at New York University and for the past ten at SUNY Purchase. He also is a member of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra and its educational outreach program to jazz students in that New York county's public schools. And he has conducted clinics around the world, often during tours with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Jazz fans can only hope that Ralph Lalama's exceptional Mighty Quinn outings mark a return to regular recording for this deserving-of-much-wider-recognition tenor master.
left to right: John Hart (guitar), Rick Petrone (bass), Ralph Lalama (tenor sax) & Joe Corsello (drums).

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