Playing it as they see it

Music and films have gone together for as long as movie cameras have been around.

Ralph Alessi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ralph Alessi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Music and films have gone together for as long as movie cameras have been around.
Other than Alfred Hitchcock’s gripping suspense drama The Birds, which has only the sparse incidental music as a counterpart to the director’s supremely weighted silences, every piece of celluloid and digital format film employs a significant quantity of music to enhance the finished product.
Then again, as Omer Klein, Marty Erhlich and Ralph Alessi know full well, some visual arts are more musically demanding than others. The Israeli pianist, American reedman and compatriot trumpeter, along with American bass player Drew Gress and Italian drummer Roberto Dani, will perform the closing slot in this year’s Opera House Jazz series next Friday at 9:30 p.m. It is sure to be an emotive end of term event as, for much of the concert, the quintet will play material written by Klein, Erhlich and Alessi based on a moving documentary by Ana-Isabel Ordonez, called Order from Chaos. The film tells the stories of three Holocaust survivors and will be screened while the band performs.
Considering the nature of the subject matter, Alessi appears to be maintaining a surprisingly sober mindset. “Whenever I really think too much about what I’m writing for, then things don’t grow as organically as I’d like them to,” says the veteran trumpeter who has seven albums under his belt as leader and more than 40 as a sideman. “So I try not to think too much,” he laughs, although adding in a more serious vein that some investment of gray matter is needed after all. “I try to write some moods that I think are appropriate.
Sometimes if you try to match things up too much, it can be a little contrived. I am just trying to create something that relates [to the subject matter], whether in an obvious way or an ironic way.”
While Klein and Ehrlich – the other musicians contributing original scores to the Opera House concert program – are Jewish, one wonders whether the fact that Alessi is not Jewish (and therefore possibly less emotionally involved in the topic of the documentary) allows him some extra breathing room and the ability to approach the project more objectively.
“I guess so,” says the trumpeter, “although even if it was something I did have a personal attachment to, I would still try not to be overly emotional about it. I compose music intuitively. If my left brain intervenes, I come up with things I don’t really like.”
Alessi is very much a natural choice to write new material for a movie. His music has a voluminous aspect to it and tends to conjure up different images, like scenes from a film.
“I’ve heard people say that about my music before. When I write, I don’t think that way. But I am like most people – I like films and film music, and I guess that’s in there.
People have said that some of my music sounds like a film score. I think that is a compliment because people see imagery in the music, and I think that’s great.”
That is certainly the case with Alessi’s most recent recording as leader, Cognitive Dissonance, which received excellent reviews.
The trumpeter brings an impressive arsenal of musical skills and a broad substratum to his work on Order from Chaos. He grew up in a very musical home, with a classical trumpeter father and an opera singer mother.
His brother is principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Coming up, Alessi occasionally earned his rent money by freelancing as a classical musician.
Since becoming a professional jazz musician, Alessi has enjoyed fruitful synergies with a wide range of artists from different generations and different sectors of the jazz community, such as veteran bass player Charlie Haden, late saxophonist-band leader Sam Rivers, stellar pianist Jason Moran and New York pianist-composer Uri Caine. In fact, Alessi performed with Caine here in January, when the two played at the winter version of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat.
Alessi should feel quite comfortable on the Opera House stage, having enjoyed a long performing and recording association with Gress, and in the last year or two he and Ehrlich have played quite a few gigs together in New York.
In addition to providing musical accompaniment for Order from Chaos, the quintet will also follow suit with what has become a regular feature of the Opera House Jazz series and perform jazz renditions of numbers from the Israeli Songbook.
While Alessi doesn’t claim to be entirely conversant with charts written by such venerated Israeli songsmiths as Naomi Shemer, Mordehai Zeira or Sasha Argov, he says that, over the years, he has learned to be adaptable.
“We all come with our cultural or other baggage, but when you live in a place like New York, you get used to that. That’s part of who I am today.”
For tickets and more information about the Order from Chaos concert: (03) 692-7777 and