For trumpeter Ralph Alessi's third ECM date, 2019's vividly realized Imaginary Friends, he's reunited his This Against That ensemble with longtime friend and associate saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. The two like-minded artists initially met while students at the California Institute of the Arts in the late '80s, and have played together on and off since. An inventive improvisor in the Kenny Wheeler mold, Alessi makes modern creative jazz that is aware of tradition but rarely evinces it. He's well-matched by his partner. The son of John and Alice Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane has spent much of his career bucking obvious comparisons to his iconic father, while conversely living up to his family lineage with his own deeply cerebral style of post-bop. This album follows Alessi's two previous ECM outings, 2013's Baida and 2016's Quiver, and it's the first to feature This Against That since 2011's Wiry Strong. As with Wiry Strong, Alessi and Coltrane are joined by bandmates pianist Andy Milne, drummer Mark Ferber, and bassist Drew Gress. This is nuanced, atmospheric music that skirts the hinterlands between searching modal bop, evocative soundscapes, and measured jazz lyricism. The opening "Iram Issela" is a gorgeously measured, slow burn of song, in which Alessi and Coltrane take turns flitting against the angular, Middle Eastern twilight of Milne's piano. Also evocative, the off-kilter, klezmer-esque groove of "Improper Authorities" brings to mind a desert caravan as Coltrane sends ribbons of multi-colored harmonic spirals down upon his bandmates. Elsewhere, as on "Pittance," Alessi builds cinematic tension, shifting between bird-like squelches and soft fluttered patterns against what sounds like either a bass or plucked piano strings. Similarly, the title track begins enigmatically with Gress drawing vocal-like emanations from his bowed bass as Ferber and Milne drop a steady rhythmic sparkle, before Alessi and Coltrane finally cut through the aural fog. Of course, it's not all imagistic jazz poetry: the buoyant "Melee" and aptly titled "Fun Room" joyously bring to mind Out to Lunch-era Eric Dolphy. Ultimately, it's that kind of non-binary iconoclasm and willingness to push beyond the obvious that makes Imaginary Friends so compelling.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar