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.