Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Ralph Lalama. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Ralph Lalama: – I grew up in a little town north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, called West Aliquippa. It was a steel mill town. My grandfather was a state auditor and my father worked at the mill; they were both musicians. My father, Nofrey Lalama, was a professional drummer, as well, and my mother, Jennie Lalama, was a singer. They worked gigs together until I was born, and then she stopped to raise me and, thereafter, my younger brother, Dave. Dad kept working, though. And Mom kept singing around the house, which is where I learned a lot about melody. When I was in grade school I started playing the clarinet, which was given to me by my grandfather.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose your musical instrument?
RL: – I got interested in picking up the saxophone because I used to listen to Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz and Gene Ammons, as their recordings were among my father’s record collection. Then, at age 14, I found a gift under the Christmas tree; it was a tenor saxophone. My “teachers” were the recordings as mentioned above; I played along with them and tried to find my own sound. I attended college at Youngstown State University (YSU), where I met the great Tony Leonardi, who was spearheading their new jazz studies program. Tony was a great bassist who broadened my jazz horizons by turning me on to different players like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Joe Henderson. That program at YSU was a breeding ground for lots of us young musicians who were exposed to ensemble playing, combo playing, and developing as soloists.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
RL: – I was lucky enough to play small group gigs on a regular basis, as well as big band, where I learned sound production, intonation, blending and phrasing. I never had to be told to practice, I always had the self-discipline to practice every day. Through that, I developed my own exercises for tone. These are exercises that I still incorporate into my daily practice.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
RL: – As a teenager, I was heavily influenced by Mr. James Brown and Maceo Parker. Because of that, it really strengthened the division of the beat for me. Their sensibility about rhythm was ingrained in my soul.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
RL: – I’m studying the tri-tone substitution, diminished scales, altered scales, minor third above, and half-step above.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
RL: – I don’t have any specific favorites.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
RL: – As far as studio sessions go, I have many memorable moments, including working with the Joe Lovano Nonet on the Grammy-winning, “52nd Street Themes;” my first record with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, “20 Years at the Village Vanguard” (on Atlantic); and my five recordings as a leader for Criss-Cross Records. One of the most memorable sessions was on the “Momentum” CD, with Kenny Barron, Dennis Irwin and Kenny Washington. As far as gigs are concerned, playing every Monday night at the Village Vanguard is full of great memories. Just hearing these great musicians and playing these incredible arrangements is a source of great pride and satisfaction for me. Also, I love playing with my trio, “Bop Juice,” at Smalls Jazz in NYC, with my decades-long colleague, drummer Clifford Barbaro.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
RL: – Jazz is a social music. My advice to aspiring musicians is to go out and listen to people playing live, hang out with and meet your colleagues. Put your phone down and open your ears.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
RL: – I certainly hope so!
JBN.S: – Which collaboration(s) have been the most important experiences for you?
RL: – Working with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band under the direction of John Faddis; the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra; my trio, “Bop Juice;” the Joe Lovano Nonet, and collaborating with my brother, pianist Dave Lalama, and recording and performing with my wife, vocalist Nicole Pasternak. Just being on the New York jazz scene, every day you’re playing with different people in different situations. You never know what will happen next. Then, when it does happen, embrace it.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
RL: – There’s a good reason why we call them “standard tunes.” It’s because, like any great work of art, they stand the test of time. And as far as your own interpretation of the great standards is concerned, you are only limited by your own imagination. I teach young students at New York University and SUNY Purchase (NY) College. My ensembles are called the “High Standard” ensemble, a double-entendre, for not only do we strive to incorporate the great standards into their repertoire, we also take the great standards and add elements of modernity to them by enhancing the harmony and rhythm so they don’t sound so “old” anymore. The second meaning of the High Standard is that all students must hold themselves personally accountable to the high demands of this music.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
RL: – The way my spirit is touched by this music is what brings my life meaning.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
RL: – I just hope to keep playing and growing in this music for as long as I can. As for fear and anxiety, I sleep well at night.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
RL: – I would change how jazz music is marketed, so it would touch more people and the world would be a happier place. Because right now, too many people have not been exposed to it or educated about its great history and that it is, in fact, America’s original great art form. When I travel to Japan and Europe, their aptitude and enthusiasm vis-à-vis jazz is significantly greater. So, to sum it all up, I would change how America embraces its very own.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
RL: – Finding a good reed.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
RL: – Only insofar as all genres can be improvised upon. But the jazz beat is focused on 2 and 4, whereas folk music is focused more on 1 and 3. The similarity between them rests upon the musician expressing his or her own heart through their chosen musical genre.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
RL: – I’m still learning from Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane and lately have been diving into some classical music, like Mahler, Paul Hindemith, and Bach.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
RL: – My current set-up is a Selmer Mark VI with a 3-Hard D’Addario reed (I am an official D’Addario Performing Artist). My mouthpiece is a Francois-Louis. My alternate instrument was recently designed and constructed by Mr. John Leadbetter of New York City. It is made out of rose brass, which has a different, I would say, “rounder sound” than the Selmer. I am currently playing both of them in different musical settings.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
RL: – I would want to go the 1950s, in New York City, to the beginning of Hard Bop. The reason for this is because they were swinging so hard.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
RL: – I guess my question would be to your readers. I would ask them if they could tell the difference between authentic and inauthentic music, i.e., music from the heart and soul, versus the music that is the “flavor of the month?”
JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan