Review and photographs by J Hunter
I vacillate between amusement and frustration whenever someone asks, “Is jazz dead?” Because my serious answer involves slapping the questioner upside the head, I tend to go with a funny answer. (“Well, if it is, then that explains all these zombies running around thirsting for Wynton Marsalis’ brain!”) Ralph Lalama didn’t slap anybody during the pre-show Q&A at Athens Cultural Center, but he certainly was serious when someone brought up the question people have been asking since time unmentionable. “The bottom line is jazz is about improvisation,” he asserted, getting up from where he’d been sitting for the free-ranging 45-minute session. “I don’t care what style you play! As long as you’re telling a story, jazz will never die!”
The fact that the veteran tenorman bears more than a passing resemblance to Mark Twain makes his comment about jazz as storytelling all the more apt. Lalama’s longtime trio Bopjuice has been playing together for a couple of decades now, but Live at Smalls (smallsLIVE) is their first recorded effort. And while there are two Lalama originals in the red-hot set, there are also classics from icons like Wayne Shorter, Lester Young and (of course) Thad Jones. So the trick is not tell those stories as they’ve been told before, but to tell them in a way others might never have thought of. Ralph Lalama is a master of that trick, and he brought two players to Athens that are just as adept.
Young’s “Love Letters” is somewhere in the middle of Live at Smalls, but Lalama called the mid-tempo ballad to open up the musical side of the evening. Lalama was un-mic’d, which is the best way to see him, because he is completely unbound, and he stood to the left of drummer Clifford Barbaro’s kit throwing out line after line of lyrics – and I do mean “lyrics.” Everything he played made sense, one point following the other, making the solo less about the chops and more about the story. And while this was Young’s story, Lalama was definitely telling it his way.
Lalama loves telling stories, even if they’re bad. This was the third time I’ve seen him call Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand,” and each time he’s introduced it as “the dumbest song ever written!” With an intro like that, you’d think Lalama would put less than his best effort into its performance; instead, he lights into it like a starving cheetah and makes it dance, filling the piece with the rich, powerful tone Lalama conjures up every time he puts the mouthpiece to his lips. Maybe it comes down to the challenge of taking a song that stupid and making it sound smart. If that’s the case, Lalama succeeded one more time.
Lalama’s played “Cowhand” a little bit different every time I’ve seen him. And according to him and his partners, that’s the way it is with Bopjuice. “Even though you play the same tunes a lot,” bassist Mike Karn explains, “there’s always something going on!” Karn was subbing for Joel Forbes on this night, and he subs for David Wong in Lalama’s best-known vehicle, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. That’s still amazing to Karn, who insists he “was really stepping on the music” when he first played with the band. Part of it might be false modesty, and part of it might be the fact that he’s a saxophonist who came late to the bass. That said, Karn’s got his own sense of lyric and structure, and the aggression he displayed on the hard-bopping “Da-Lamma’s Da-Lemma” was quite impressive. Karn also showed his talent for “giving the band what it wants and what it needs at the same time” by keeping it spare on “Detour Ahead” while Lalama pulled every ounce of blues out of the classic Billie Holiday song.
Barbaro knows how to keep it spare, too, but every time Lalama challenged him to trade 8’s, the veteran drummer (who came up with the name “Bopjuice”) answered the call with breaks that went deeper and wider with each pass, and rippled with muscle when the moment called for it. Barbaro is an alumnus of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, of which its leader said, “This is not a jazz band! This is an avant-garde band!” (Barbaro looked at us in amazement. “What’s ‘avant-garde?’”) Although he name-checked Tony Williams as one of his favorite drummers, Barbaro’s taut style is a product of Old School influences like Max Roach and Art Blakey, which is tailor-made for the stripped-out bop this band serves up. So while Lalama was ripping off sheets and sheets of notes on the closer “Wonderful, Wonderful”, Barbaro was going full steam ahead.
Lalama is fast with the one-liners (“I made Dick Oatts what he is today!” “I had to change my reed because Joe Lovano sent me 50 of his reeds, so I thought I’d try one. He means well…”), and when presented with the concept of all the young musicians coming out of jazz programs and looking to be a star, Lalama’s answer was classic: “Bring ‘em on,” he laughed. “Let’s go!” But when it comes to this music, Lalama is as serious as an IRS audit, and he’ll keep telling great stories whenever he gets the chance. He’s been telling stories with Bopjuice for a long time, and now we all get to hear how that sounds.