ECM recording artist and trumpeter Ralph Alessi blew into town with his superlative NYC quartet on Feb. 25 -- featuring pianist David Virelles, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Gerald Cleaver -- to deliver an outstanding evening of probing jazz to a packed house at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library.
Alessi’s concept crystalized on the appropriately titled “Shush,” a one-chord vamp from his brand-new release, “Quiver,” that produced a long, measured solo that fluttered and swooped between delicate textures and half-valve screeching. Virelles followed, shattering considerable moments of silence with violent clusters delivered with a rolling fist on the house Steinway.
There was a contrapuntal feel to “Do Over,” which found the trumpeter darting in and out of harmonic traffic over the precise martial cadences of Cleaver, whose relaxed drumming was consistently delightful. Also revealing was the input of Gress, who balanced rich whole notes with elastic velocity in a deeply organic presentation.
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There was the tension of sparkling melody straining against dark harmonies on “Low,” and the aching interior of Alessi’s “Maria Lydia,” which lingered atop the whispered brushes of Cleaver before Virelles entered with manic left-hand rumbling.
Those who stuck around for the second set were rewarded with a markedly more committed experience. Beginning with “In Flight Entertainment,” Cleaver turned the heat up with wonderfully timed rolls, which inspired Alessi to respond with cycling volleys of tart notes, while the huge woody sound of Gress offset the nervous jangling of Virelles.
One of the greatest revelations of this concert was the opportunity to hear how much energy Cleaver sets into motion with an absolute minimum of superfluous movement. He seemed as relaxed as a guy reading the newspaper -- but everything fed off of his input.
Music of this level of quality almost always bears the imprint of Daniel Atkinson and the folks at Athenaeum Jazz. Given their commitment in years of excellent service to the San Diego music community, that’s an understatement.