Ralph Lalama: Steppin' Out, Steppin' Forward
"The stories [of his temper] are true, but it's not really. ... When his band sucked, he told you. I remember one time there was this trumpet section from North Texas State, and they weren't that experienced so they were fired right away. But he didn't yell or anything. You know why? Because he knew they couldn't play. But if you can play, and you're messing things up, he gets mad. Like if you're with a corporation and you weren't doing your job, the guy would bring you in his office. Buddy had his own way, of course. He would scream. Cause he was nuts, you know," laughs Lalama, fondly recalling his former boss. "But I liked the guy. I really did. He wasn't my favorite jazz drummer. But he was the greatest drummer, technically. He was like the Michael Brecker of the drums. Technically, he was ridiculous. Ridiculous."
The experience also allowed him to rub elbows at times with other notable jazzmen. "I remember we used to play the Bottom Line in New York a lot. And every time we played, Jo Jones would come in. They were friends. He'd always get Jo Jones to play a tune. We happened to have a John LaBarbera arrangement of 'One O'Clock Jump.' It wasn't what Basie played, it was what Buddy played. We didn't play it that much, but he would call it when Jo Jones would sit in. I happened to play on that tune, so I got to play with Jo Jones about 10 times'Papa' Jo," says Lalama, with pride. "But they were friends. He had friends. Guys respected him. He was funny. I liked the guy."
Woody Herman was different, he recalls. "He was never on the bus. He was cool. He was nuts, too. I learned a lot. That was my first major-league gig, so to speak. I had played with Thad, but as far as being steady, you had to perform every night. You were on the roadbig-time jazz, out there doing it. I learned a lot, man. ... Leaders have to trust you. Just for the normal stuff, like being on time and playing the music, but also the musical thing., They have to trust that when you go up and play, you're going to be cool. I was 22, 23a kid, or course. You learn these things, playing with people like that."
Each experience had its own enriching qualities. "The way I look at itand this is not a putdownbut Woody was like high school, Buddy was like college and Mel's band was like life: the real shit. That's not a putdown of Buddy or Woody at all. That's just the way it happened for me. Every one of them was a strong, strong thing. I learned different things. With Buddy I learned technique. He played a lot of things real fasta lot of saxophone solos and stuff. Woody wasn't quite like that. It was more likeother than a few things like 'Four Brothers' and stuffit was ... like high school. And Buddy, like college, fast, learning your saxophone better. And Mel was all of thateven more blending and more musically challenging." He adds with affection, "the jazz part is deep, to play with those guys."
In addition to sitting in the sax section of big groups, Lalama has always played other projects around New York. He plays with just bass and drums. The band on the new CD has been active for a while. There's Lovano's band and also work with his wife.
"I'm married to a singer. Nicole Pasternak. We did a CD together called In a Word (Garagista Music, 2003): Don Friedman [piano] and Dennis Irwin [bass]no drums. She's a great singer. I've played with other singers, of course. Mel Tormé, I used to play with him a lot. When you play with the big bands, you play with a lot of singers too. I can remember all of them right now. Right now, I'm only thinking about oneNicole Pasternak," he says chuckling. "She's baaad, man. I'm talking about the American Songbook. I think she wrote the American Songbook. I learned tunes off of her."
It's added up to a stellar career jammed with a lot of variety, which is the way the saxophonist likes it. "Big bands, small groups. I was playing in the Carnegie Hall band with [Jon] Faddis. I did that for about eight years. I remember playing at Carnegie Hall on a Thursday night. So I had a tuxedo, playing a gig. I was also running a jam session at the Savoy, on 41st Street. It's not there anymore. But I would go from playing in a big band in Carnegie Hall, and about a half-hour later I'd throw on my street clothes and go to the Savoy and run this jam session. That would be my night. I thought it was pretty diverse. Even the clothes were diverse," he says with a sparkle. "From a tuxedo to street clothes in a bar, having played Carnegie Hall about 15 minutes prior."
So New York City has been good to Lalama, who's pushing age 60. Certainly, the reverse is true as well. And now is a time he's trying to step out more. Lead his own groups and get his name out there as a player, group leader and writer.