RALPH LALAMA TRIO
(feat. Joe Barna & Lou Smaldone)
Bread & Jam Café
July 23, 2010
by J Hunter
“Why go see Ralph Lalama at Bread & Jam?” I’m sure the logic went. “He played SPAC just a few weeks ago! There was an article in the TU and everything!” Okay, that kinda-sorta has merit: The renowned tenorman did close the Sunday Gazebo stage at Freihofer’s Jazz Festival. But while he and the quartet he fronted at SPAC did an admirable job, it was nothing compared to the flame-throwing performance Lalama put on with ample assistance from bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Joe Barna. And this show had to be something special, for two reasons: We’re talking two sets of material from the songbooks of Wayne Shorter and Thad Jones, neither of whom were shrinking violets; and the music would be processed through a sax-trio matrix, which comes with its own set of skyscraper-tall issues.
Now, they say “Three’s a crowd”, so that means there were about five crowds spread about Bread & Jam’s marvelously comfortable setting when Lalama counted his partners into a kicking take on Jones’ “Love Thy Neighbor.” Lalama told us afterwards that the tune was used as a theme song for a British sitcom of the same name, but if BBC had used Lalama’s version, there’d have been exploded heads all over England. Lalama pumped out Old School bebop with a warm center, while Smaldone worked the hell out of the bottom of his bass’ neck and Barna brought the noise like we all know he can do. He and Lalama traded 8’s and then 4’s, ramping things up with each pass, and although Smaldone was low in the mix for the first set, his solo lines for this piece (and others were absolutely infallible.
Lalama followed the opener with “a song that’ll depress the hell out of ya!” It was Shorter’s “Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum”, and it let Lalama blow smoking tenor blues. He didn’t come out blasting, as many would have; instead, he turned the wick up inch by inch with each chorus, keeping it fresh and interesting all the way. That was Lalama’s approach throughout both sets, whether he was playing Shorter’s blistering “Marie Antoinette” and Blue Mitchell’s calypso romp “Fungee Mama”, or standards like “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I’m an Old Cowhand.” (“The dumbest song ever written,” Lalama asserted, tongue only partially in cheek.
Playing sax-trio is kind of like installing track lighting while juggling live penguins… as you’re making love, onstage, in a packed concert hall, with President Obama and the entire First Family in attendance: The number of ways it can all go wrong is astronomical! That being said, Lalama and his partners were absolutely seamless from start to finish. It was so good, employees in the store on the other side of the street braved the killer humidity and came outside to listen. Smaldone’s rock-solid foundation and Barna’s thunderous fills freed Lalama to just let it all go and give every piece the proper treatment… or mistreatment, as the case may be. On the other side of the equation, Lalama’s energy and creativity inspired Barna and Smaldone to hit greater and greater heights. (Lalama’s handoff to Barna on “If Ever” ended with this questioning note that seemed to say, “Okay, I’m done. Whatta you got?” Barna showed us, and how!)
Smaldone’s solo on “United” jumped in and out of time signatures as easy as you please, and a little more volume confirmed how hot his support work was. During Barna’s Bread & Jam recording session with Sketches of Influence, the drummer held back to let his compositions have the spotlight; on this night, the motto seemed to be, “Let Barna be Barna”, as almost everything he played was super-sized for the crowd’s enjoyment. As much as I liked seeing Barna’s discipline as a leader, it was very cool to watch him be a sideman and just play.
The night ended with a super-fast deconstruction of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful, Wonderful.” (“Another dumb song,” Lalama informed us, “but I like to improvise on it… It makes me sound hip!”) Lalama had been in good spirits all evening, conversing with both the crowd and the wait staff between songs, and he seemed to take the low attendance in stride. Promoting the second night of his stand, Lalama playfully instructed us, “Tell your enemies who hate jazz, ‘There’s this really great rock band at Bread & Jam!’ We’ll rip ‘em off!” A cunning plan, to be sure, but if anybody did follow his advice, I’m pretty sure none of their enemies felt ripped off. If anything, the experience was probably enlightening.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.