Label: ECM Records, 2019
Personnel - Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Ravi Coltrane: tenor, sopranino; Andy Milne: piano; Drew Gress: bass; Mark Ferber: drums.
Trumpeter supreme Ralph Alessi reconvenes his longtime quintet, known as This Against That, for its third ECM album. Imaginary Friends comprises nine mature originals fully developed while touring in Europe. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber are the remaining members of the group.
They make a wonderful first impression on the soulful opening track, “Iram Issela”, whose strange title consists of the name of Alessi’s eight-year-old daughter spelt backwards. Piano and trumpet set up reserved moments of pure beauty, after which Alessi flies in a solo full of brightness and expression. At a certain point, already with bass and brushed drums as accompaniment, he gets Coltrane’s voice leading running in parallel with his melodies. The saxophonist then departs for a glorious improvisation full of art and spirituality. By the end, unison lines and circular harmonic progressions raise the intensity, a propitious time for Ferber to expand drumming chops.
“Fun Room” and “Improper Authorities” are formidable cuts presented with insatiable imagination and controlled friction. Whereas the former boasts an odd way of swinging and reaches a peak with Alessi’s fluttering soloistic impulses, the latter wields an ostinato that whether works as an electronic dance pattern or a funk rock-based motif. Colorful unisons and virtuosic solos by Coltrane and Milne come into existence, with the pianist excelling on this one by competently outlining melodic symmetries and rhythmic figures.
“Oxide” merges improvisatory discipline with oneiric melodicism. While Milne devises chromatic descents with purpose, Gress’ round notes are responsible for letting the music breathe. The horns switch from parallel movements to dialogue, and Milne concludes with cadenced intervals that resemble raindrops falling from a tree. Divergent in nature, this song doesn’t have the grooving quality of “Melee”, whose light-footed propulsion rules in most of its passages. The spotlight shifts from the trumpet to the piano to the expansive sopranino, which dances over the fidgety drumming without reservation. An instant avant-garde dish is served with some funk on the side.
“Pittance” reveals as much introspection as the rubato trumpet/piano duet “Good Boy” or the title track, which amasses cymbal legato, bowed bass, and unclouded reflective polyphony. However, there’s a slight tension throughout, even with the prepared piano conferring it a distinct lyrical erudition.
The methodical, unfolding narrative arc of Imaginary Friends makes it an exceptional collection of impassioned, free-shimmering tone poems where the musical personality of Alessi shines through.
01 - Iram Issela ► 03 - Improper Authorities ► 08 - Melee