Ralph Lalama: Steppin' Out, Steppin' Forward
Ralph Lalama's rich tenor saxophone voice has been heard for years on the New York City scene, perhaps most notably with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and its predecessors, first led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and later by just Lewis. He's a guy who grew up when rock music was fully bursting on the American scene, but maintains that not much of that music touched him. He came from a family that listened to jazz and the American Popular Song canon, and he chose that direction.
"The feeling of it," is the turn-on of jazz to the Pennsylvania native who has called the Big Apple area his home for several years now. He's not native, but he's a New Yorker, alright. He's got the style of speech, a kind of dry New York Italian sense of humor and a what-me-worry casualness about him. "I love the beat. I'm a beat guy. And I love the interaction--the conversation on the bandstand, musically, of course. I think the U.S. Senate could learn a lot if they just listened to jazz sometime. They really should."
"Some corporations do. They present jazz to their corporations, to show how to get camaraderie and listening to each other and know what everybody else is doing, to make a whole. A couple guys told me this happens. I think Congress should get into it, instead of listening to Bruce Springsteen," he adds with an exaggerated "steeeen" in a semi-gruff but amiable manner. It's a manner that bears no ill will toward Springsteen or anyone, really. Lalama is just direct, that's all, and wears his love of jazz standards and jazz music on his sleeve.
Lalama plays with deep feeling that has carried him through the big bands of Jones and Lewis, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and the Carnegie Hall group led by Jon Faddis. His muscular sound has also placed him in all kinds of small group contexts around New York City over the years, and earned him a spot in Joe Lovano's nonet when that group gets together for periodic gigs and tours.
Getting back to that feeling, Lalama remembers when he broke up with a girlfriend many years ago and discovered that "every time I would play, I would feel much better than when I wasn't. It was therapy. It never hit me that hard, how really soulful that stuff is. Playing these songs, they meant much more to me than they ever did. It affects you physically and emotionally, intellectually. It's really soothing--not all smooth; I don't mean that. It can be Coltrane, banging it away. It can be Stan Getz playing a ballad. It can be Miles. It can be Miles playing funk. It's great. Wow. The true artists, when you listen to it, then you listen to it eight years from now, you're still turned on. Twenty years from now--the same way."
"I don't feel the same way about the Grand Funk Railroad, that's for sure," he adds with a soft laugh.
The feeling Lalama achieves in his playing has been captured on a handful of recordings under his own name, but the latest example surfaced this year. The Audience (Mighty Quinn Productions, 2010) was cut with the saxophonist's working quartet. It was done pretty much live, no overdubs. It's the second album the group has done for the label, whose owner, Jerry Roche, urged the band to record a few years back, the first result being Energy Fields (Mighty Quinn Productions, 2008).
Lalama plays largely jazz standards in the company of guitarist John Hart, a tasty foil for his tenor, and the always rock-solid rhythm section of veterans Rick Petrone on bass and Nick Corsello on drums. Listening to the disc is like sitting in a club listening to this very talented group run though its set list, conversing with one another and, in doing so, making a great overall sound with an elasticity, but with a central focus.
Says Lalama, "We set up and we hit. A couple takes on a couple tunes. Some were just one take. That's the way I like to do it, unless it's a big production--that's another story. But this wasn't a big production, just guys playing." As for its natural feel, his response, is simple: "Yeah. Jazz." The two words are punctuated with a chuckle. Uncomplicated.
The disk covers songs like Wayne Shorter's "Marie Antionette," Duke Pearson's "Minor League," and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." Notable is a stroll through "I'm an Old Cowhand," a nod to Sonny Rollins who famously did the tune in 1957. "I love Sonny Rollins. He's one of my heroes. I still listen to him," says Lalama.
Playing "Cowhand" isn't just a Rollins thing, however. It's an example of the kind of music Lalama likes to improvise over: simpler melodies, simpler concepts, over which he likes to find more complex ways of expressing himself.
"Today, everybody seems like they're writing all kinds of hard shit and what they're playing over it isn't that--it's less complicated that the song is," he says. "I like to play simple songs and make them more complicated. Add different colors to it rather than have to play all the colors every second. I like to go in and out, personally. I like to still play songs like that--simple, but you can create something on top of it."
Some of the younger musicians, he notes, are writing complex things, sometimes for the sake of being complex. But "when they play, they're not really that complex. ... They kind of play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' over all that [complex] shit," he laughs quietly. "I like to play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and play crazy stuff over it--not crazy, but the stuff I'm into over it." Of his style and approach, he adds, "I'm still workin' on it. Still workin.' It's a work in progress."
Lalama is at his most expressive on the record on the ballad "Portrait of Jennie," which he dedicates to his mother, the late Jennie Lalama, a professional singer who was an early musical influence. On it, he is at his melodic best, and his sumptuous tone brings out the best in the song.
"She sang the American Songbook," he says of his mother. "I always wondered why my appetite for music was at a high level. I always wanted to listen to it or play it. It's what I gravitated toward. Even though I played sports, but music was like ... One day I asked my mother. She said I was born on January 30th. And her last gig before I was born was New Year's Eve. So I was in her womb for eight months hearing these tunes live on the stage. I was hearing that vibration. It happened naturally. ... I like playing the American Songbook. It's in my blood."
Lalama's pal and musical cohort, Lovano, also wrote album notes for the recording. "We go way back. We still argue," he says jokingly. "I met him at a club in Cleveland. I was going to Youngstown State University [Ohio] for a music degree. Lovano lived in Cleveland. There was a great club called the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. They would have everybody. I heard Stan Getz there. Miles. Chick. Herbie. Freddie Hubbard. Junior Cook. Sonny Stitt. It was a great club--six nights a week, from Monday to Saturday. Sometimes Lovano or different local guys would play a set before the kingpins, the main acts. There was this kid, I didn't know who he was at the time, but it was Lovano. We got talking a few times.
"In 1976, I think it was, I joined Woody Herman's band, and there he was. We've been playing ever since. We played in that band. I play in his nonet. We played with Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra for about 10 years, together. Plus everything else we did here in town [New York City]. A couple things here and there. He's my man. We went to different schools together."
Lovano, for his part, states in his album notes that the group plays "with a joyous attitude that defines what jazz music is all about."
Before the Smiling Dog days, Lalama's musical roots were influenced by his grandfather and his parents. His father, Nofrey, was a drummer and met his mother on the bandstand, so music was bound to ensue. (His brother, David, teaches music at Hofstra University and the Manhattan School of Music.) Like many youngsters, the clarinet became his first experience with reed instruments.
"My grandfather gave me my first clarinet when I was 9. He was a clarinet and alto player. Then I ended up getting a tenor for Christmas when I was 14. I started fooling around with that. Music was in the air in the house. My father listened to Sonny Stitt and Stan Getz. My mother was a singer, so we listened to Ella, the big bands." As rock music became prominent on the scene, it was soul stuff that Lalama preferred.
"I liked James Brown. Not that I didn't like the other. I listened to Stitt when I was 14. It was difficult to figure out, for me, at the time. The groups that I played with at that age--14, 15, 16--we played like James Brown. So I was into Maceo [Parker]. But it evolved from that. Jazz was always there. I wasn't one of these kids that: my parents liked it, so I hated it. I wasn't one of those. I liked it because it grooves. I had that record of Stitt with Jack McDuff. [Sonny Stitt with Jack McDuff; Stitt Meets Brother Jack (OJC, 1962)]. I wore that one out."
About rock music, he explains, "James Brown was so swinging to me. I liked The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. That was about it. All of that other music, I couldn't use. Cream and all that stuff, The Who--that didn't make any sense. So I got deeper into jazz then because I wasn't diggin' what was happening with my colleagues. My friends and what they listened to--I didn't like it. It wasn't swinging. James Brown was killin.' The other stuff was too oom-pah, oom-pah for me," he says with a chortle.
"As I got older, I heard Trane: 'What the hell is this?' Sonny Rollins too. I remember this guy turned me onto A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957), Sonny Rollins playing trio. I was mesmerized. The saxophone's supposed to sound like this? That was it. Forget it, I'm done," he says with respect, adding gleefully, "Life's over as I know it."
At Youngstown State, a jazz program was about to be born, spearheaded by another student and mentor to Lalama, Anthony Leonardi. "He was about 12 years older than me. He was a bassist. He used to play with Woody Herman. He played with Woody with Sal Nitisco. He's the one that turned me on to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane--that kind of stuff. Bird, even. He was a bassist, so he knew about harmony and stuff. He started a one-hour elective [course] at Youngstown. There was no jazz at Youngstown. I was a clarinet major. There wasn't even a saxophone major when I was there. He started this and formed a band. It caught on with the administration. Now you can get a Master's and a Bachelor's at Youngstown in performance and education and arranging, I think. But it started out with that. It led up to what it is now. Tony started it, but I was a big part of it, because I was kind of like the star. We would pack the place. We'd play a concert, there'd be 700 people there. I was also in the wind ensemble and the symphony, except there'd be about 150 people there. The administration started seeing dollar signs. I think that's one of the reasons they made a major out of it. Tony did it. He was my man."
Leonardi also invited Thad Jones to the school for teaching and performing sessions. That proved to be fortuitous for the young Lalama. "One night we did a concert and Thad was out front. I got to play, and I played things in the afternoon with him. He let me play. That was a trip and a half for me. I was talking to Thad, and he said, 'If you want to play, do it seriously; you ought to move to New York.' So I did."
Three months later, Lalama was in New York. "Thad, being the beautiful guy that he was, I would start subbing in the band [Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band]. My first gig in town was in New Jersey. Thad and Mel used to have something to do with William Patterson College. We did three gigs in a little club on campus. They asked me if I wanted to do it. This wasn't with the big band. This was a quintet with George Mraz [bass], Walter Norris [piano] and Mel and Thad. That was my first gig, man. I couldn't believe it. I'm sitting there shaking. I was lucky they played a tune I heard of, let alone knew. It was a dream come true."
In the Jones-Lewis big band, "Frank Foster and Gregory Herbert were in the band at the time, on tenor. So I would sub for them. This was off on the road, doing stints with the big bands of Woody Herman and Buddy Rich. When I came back, I was subbing a lot with Mel's band. It was Mel's band then. [Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Jones had departed.] Gary Pribek quit and I got the chair. I've been there ever since [through its permutation into the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra]. Lovano was in the band at the time. It was Ted Nash, Gary Smulyan, Dick Oatts, Lovano and me. That's the saxophone section that I joined when I finally got the gig."
"The big band experience was extremely valuable. In those organizations, Lalama was able to develop "tone and intonation. Your technique and your blending. It's still very important. I've been doing it a long time, but you learn every day. You get to hear everybody, too. Especially in Mel's band there were great players, soloists. I've been sitting next to Dick Oatts for 27 years. Smulyan, Rich Perry now, and Billy Drewes."
Some wild stories exist about being on the road with Buddy Rich, who had a mercurial temper. But for Lalama, it was just part of the deal. No worries. "I like Buddy Rich. He was crazy. He was a spoiled brat, but he was a real musician. When you sat down and talked with him, he was great. He was one of the cats--like hanging with the cats. He had so many great stories about Bird and Sinatra, just to name a few. He would get in a mood: 'You guys suck. I'm gonna get an L.A. band.' Blah, blah. You had to be cool. We'd sit down and play. Two days later we're hanging on the bus.
"The stories [of his temper] are true, but it's not really. ... When his band sucked, he told you. I remember one time there was this trumpet section from North Texas State, and they weren't that experienced so they were fired right away. But he didn't yell or anything. You know why? Because he knew they couldn't play. But if you can play, and you're messing things up, he gets mad. Like if you're with a corporation and you weren't doing your job, the guy would bring you in his office. Buddy had his own way, of course. He would scream. Cause he was nuts, you know," laughs Lalama, fondly recalling his former boss. "But I liked the guy. I really did. He wasn't my favorite jazz drummer. But he was the greatest drummer, technically. He was like the Michael Brecker of the drums. Technically, he was ridiculous. Ridiculous."
The experience also allowed him to rub elbows at times with other notable jazzmen. "I remember we used to play the Bottom Line in New York a lot. And every time we played, Jo Jones would come in. They were friends. He'd always get Jo Jones to play a tune. We happened to have a John LaBarbera arrangement of 'One O'Clock Jump.' It wasn't what Basie played, it was what Buddy played. We didn't play it that much, but he would call it when Jo Jones would sit in. I happened to play on that tune, so I got to play with Jo Jones about 10 times--'Papa' Jo," says Lalama, with pride. "But they were friends. He had friends. Guys respected him. He was funny. I liked the guy."
Woody Herman was different, he recalls. "He was never on the bus. He was cool. He was nuts, too. I learned a lot. That was my first major-league gig, so to speak. I had played with Thad, but as far as being steady, you had to perform every night. You were on the road--big-time jazz, out there doing it. I learned a lot, man. ... Leaders have to trust you. Just for the normal stuff, like being on time and playing the music, but also the musical thing., They have to trust that when you go up and play, you're going to be cool. I was 22, 23--a kid, or course. You learn these things, playing with people like that."
Each experience had its own enriching qualities. "The way I look at it--and this is not a putdown--but Woody was like high school, Buddy was like college and Mel's band was like life: the real shit. That's not a putdown of Buddy or Woody at all. That's just the way it happened for me. Every one of them was a strong, strong thing. I learned different things. With Buddy I learned technique. He played a lot of things real fast--a lot of saxophone solos and stuff. Woody wasn't quite like that. It was more like--other than a few things like 'Four Brothers' and stuff--it was ... like high school. And Buddy, like college, fast, learning your saxophone better. And Mel was all of that--even more blending and more musically challenging." He adds with affection, "the jazz part is deep, to play with those guys."
In addition to sitting in the sax section of big groups, Lalama has always played other projects around New York. He plays with just bass and drums. The band on the new CD has been active for a while. There's Lovano's band and also work with his wife.
"I'm married to a singer. Nicole Pasternak. We did a CD together called In a Word (Garagista Music, 2003): Don Friedman [piano] and Dennis Irwin [bass]--no drums. She's a great singer. I've played with other singers, of course. Mel Tormé, I used to play with him a lot. When you play with the big bands, you play with a lot of singers too. I can remember all of them right now. Right now, I'm only thinking about one--Nicole Pasternak," he says chuckling. "She's baaad, man. I'm talking about the American Songbook. I think she wrote the American Songbook. I learned tunes off of her."
It's added up to a stellar career jammed with a lot of variety, which is the way the saxophonist likes it. "Big bands, small groups. I was playing in the Carnegie Hall band with [Jon] Faddis. I did that for about eight years. I remember playing at Carnegie Hall on a Thursday night. So I had a tuxedo, playing a gig. I was also running a jam session at the Savoy, on 41st Street. It's not there anymore. But I would go from playing in a big band in Carnegie Hall, and about a half-hour later I'd throw on my street clothes and go to the Savoy and run this jam session. That would be my night. I thought it was pretty diverse. Even the clothes were diverse," he says with a sparkle. "From a tuxedo to street clothes in a bar, having played Carnegie Hall about 15 minutes prior."
So New York City has been good to Lalama, who's pushing age 60. Certainly, the reverse is true as well. And now is a time he's trying to step out more. Lead his own groups and get his name out there as a player, group leader and writer.
"I can't complain. I'm trying to do more now as a leader. I was always pretty much a sideman, which I dug. I learned a lot. I learned business-wise and I learned a lot musically, everything, persistence. But now I'm trying to do a little more as a leader. That's what I feel like doing, right now. No other reason--I just kind of do what I feel, where my brain and my heart takes me. ... I can't complain about New York. I love New York."
He adds, "Things change in New York. That's one thing about it--things change. It's different now than it was 10 years ago, let alone 20 years ago, let alone 30 years ago. I kind of like that, though. It's just my personality. I like change. But sometimes, when you get older I'm starting to notice things change, but not for the good. Sometimes I feel more uptight and strain than I used to feel at 30. And I don't mean me. I mean the world. Even in the music--like I was saying before, they write these tunes that are ridiculous. It's not that I can't play them. I don't want to play them. They make me uptight." With a laugh, he proclaims, "Relax. You know?"
"But some things are even better. The way of communication is great. You can e- mail Europe without paying a dime. I remember you'd have to play $20 to talk to somebody in Europe to get a gig. Now you e-mail. That's great."
Part of Lalama's plan is to write more and keep working on improvising. "I'm going to write for me. In the last 10 years, I've been really concentrating on improvising. I do write. I have CDs out and I have tunes on there and I write. But I think I'm going to add more to it. I've been improvising, studying music and finding different things about it. It tickles my fancy to write some different things, too. That's part of being a leader, too. You should move on. You should move forward. I just want to move forward."
He pauses a second to reflect. "But still keep the folk song, which is the blues. Not that I have to play the blues every second. I don't mean that. I don't mean soul licks, but the folk song--because jazz has a folk song. That's my opinion and what I live by, basically."
A good thing to live by. So, cent' anni.
-- R.J.DeLuke, All About Jazz