June 6, 2000
RALPH ALESSI AND MODULAR THEATRE
Hissy Fit Love Slave Records lvslv 102)
There's a thin line between self-confidence and self-indulgence and Ralph Alessi crosses it often on this less-than-stellar release.
Trumpeter Alessi, one of the younger "downtowners", who in the past has done excellent work on Uri Caine's live Mahler project (on Winter & Winter), seems to think that everything he and his band does is worth preserving. Thus this record of a gig at Rochester, N.Y.'s Bop Shop, which tellingly includes no audience applause.
Most of the tunes, while affable enough, are certainly not memorable and soon degenerate into aimless riffs — when they're allowed to develop that is. Five out of seven are saddled with the banal prose/poetry of one Carl "Kokayi" Walker. Walker whose nickname may be pronounced like that of Ed "Kookie" Burns, another arbitrator of the hip (1950s beatnik version) in his 77 Sunset Strip incarnation.
Walker is no David Budbill or Steve Dalachinsky, to take two examples of poets who successfully recorded with jazzers because they understand the cadences of musical improvisation. Instead he sounds like nothing so much as vocalist Kurt Elling in his most grating pseudo hipster pose. Trouble is "Kokayi" not only lacks Elling's vocal talents, but his feeble imagery, dribbled over the tracks in a mumbled monotone, probably wouldn't cut it in high school poetry contest. On "Ice Man," for instance, his interjections ruin what could be a quite interesting solo cello piece from Roberts.
Of course Walker can't receive all of the blame for this misfire. "Litost", an all-instrumental track, seems to be no more than a collection of fanfares that goes nowhere fast. Meanwhile "Ornette's Advice" with its classic OC quartet head, degenerates into a string of solos. Alessi should know that Ornette's real advice was to construct simple, tight melodies, with no room for showboating.
Additionally the rest of the production "compliments" the music. The CD cover picture, showing a young woman grimacing, is probably an attempt to illustrate the title track (or gain unsophisticated indie rock sales); plus the liner notes include a pointless essay linking music and honey bees by Steve Coleman.
And while there's room for all that as well as a large picture of a germinating flower in the booklet, no one seems to have bothered to list which members of the saxophone family Epstein plays. (Best guess: alto and tenor).
One hates to be excessively negative, but this CD shows that not everything played deserves to be preserved and — more to the point — not every sideman is ready to be a leader.
Ralph Alessi (trumpet); Peter Epstein (saxophones [sic]); Hank Roberts (cello); Shane Endsley (drums/trumpet); Carl "Kokayi" Walker (voice)
1. Irony 2. My Worst Habit 3. The Mentor 4. Ice Man 5. Litost 6. Ornette's Advice
7. Irony (reprise)