Ralph Lalama & “Bop Juice” at Smalls 1/7/2018 (by Nathan Bellott)

PERSONNEL: Ralph Lalama, tenor saxophone, Alec Safy, upright bass, Clifford Barbaro, drums, (Joe Magnarelli, trumpet, sat in on the closing blues)

SET LIST:  Just in Time (Styne, Comden, Green), Nonchalant (Lalama), Lester Left Town (Shorter), Detour Ahead (Ellis, Frigo, Carter), Take the Coltrane (Ellington)

HIGHLIGHTS:  Barbaro’s dancing approach to rhythm propelled the band; LaLama fellow bopper Magnarelli traded exciting choruses on “Take the Coltrane.”

Ralph Lalama & “Bop Juice” was the first show I saw upon moving to New York in 2010. The trio, led by the underrated tenorman, usually features Clifford Barbaro “on the drums and cymbals” and a handful of “bass violinists”: Alec Safy has been filling that chair for a while now. Smalls is home base for Bop Juice, they play the club frequently.

As usual, Smalls was standing room only when they started the set with “Just in Time.” Lalama has a big, biting tone and a mastery of diverse articulation. For extended periods he will play turned to the side of the room, engaging the drummer and creating tension. That tension is then released in a crescendo as he turns to the audience, holding a pinched high note when Barbaro gives a big downbeat. This old-school approach is notably audience-friendly. Ralph is all about tension and release, in performance, in person and in small talk between tunes.

After some schmoozing to the crowd, they continued with the sole Lalama original of the set, “Nonchalant.” It’s a mood piece, a completely different texture. Barbaro’s mallets were subtle throughout, staying in place and fully exploring the textural possibilities. Alec Safy took a really nice solo as well. The tune’s harmony consists of lydian major chords with static motion, contrasted with the end of the form, marked by a descending minor thirds.

The influence of Sonny Rollins looms large. As with Rollins, Bop Juice’s approach to form, solo order and trading length challenged preconceived notions. “Lester Left Town” ended up with tenor and drums playing 8s,4s,2s, and even 1s. They play this tune at every Bop Juice gig, it’s my favorite in their repertoire.

Barbaro’s mastery cannot be overstated: rough around the edges and deeply swinging.

Lalama dedicated the next tune, “Detour Ahead,” to a cause that I cannot print in this review. It’s great to hear this seldom played song in the sax trio context, as I associate it with Bill Evans and pianists in general. Safy’s single chorus solo offered impeccable construction.

The ballad segued directly into Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane.” After the statement of the melody came a lengthy walking bass and drum duet, another example of Bop Juice’s unpredictable approach to form. I looked down for a second and suddenly the trumpet of Joe Magnarelli was pointed at my face from across the room (his posture is unmistakable). It was a real treat to hear him in the chordless context, stretching a bit, offering a nice balance of the hardbop language he is known for as well as forays into pentatonics. Lalama played an inspired solo as well: The blues is his bread and butter. Taking out the gig on a high note, the pair traded choruses, eliciting whoops and gasps from the crowd.

by Nathan Bellott