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Joseph Alessi breathes life into Chick Corea's last finished work, with the New York Philharmonic

Joseph Alessi performing with the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis' 'The Jungle (Symphony No. 4)' at David Geffen Hall, Dec. 28, 2016.
Chris Lee
The New York Philharmonic
Joseph Alessi performing with the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis' 'The Jungle (Symphony No. 4)' at David Geffen Hall, Dec. 28, 2016.

When Chick Corea died, early in 2021, the world lost a brilliant pianist and prolific composer who blazed a trail through modern jazz. What wasn’t often mentioned at the time was the piece Corea had been working on before his passing: a vibrant and stylistically varied trombone concerto commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its principal trombonist, Joseph Alessi.

This week, Alessi and the Phil will perform the concerto at the new David Geffen Hall — a splashy U.S. premiere for Corea’s last finished work. (Alessi played its world premiere with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in August of 2021; he played it again with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony last July.) “I’m a little overwhelmed at the fact that he even agreed to do this,” Alessi tells WRTI. “I just revere him; he was a true genius.”

Alessi has his own illustrious reputation as one of the world’s preeminent brass players. Before landing the principal trombone chair at the New York Philharmonic in 1985, he spent four seasons as second trombone at The Philadelphia Orchestra — a position he initially took in an interim capacity while studying at the Curtis Institute of Music.

courtesy of the artist

His first musical influence was his father, also named Joseph Alessi, who was principal trumpet at The Metropolitan Opera for almost 15 seasons. But Joe, Jr. also found an early pathway to jazz. “I took a few lessons with a teacher named Johnny Coppola, a jazz trumpet guy in town,” he says, recalling his upbringing in Marin County, Calif. “Johnny introduced me to J.J. Johnson. The record Dial J. J. Five — I wore the grooves out on that, and bought every J.J. record after that. Later in life, J.J asked me to play on his very last record, called The Brass Orchestra, so I was really fortunate to work with him in that way.”

Alessi played in the San Rafael High School Jazz Band, and in a quartet. “I was trying to sound like a jazz player — to understand the feel and what it’s all about,” he says. But unlike his younger brother, Ralph Alessi, who diverged from a sterling classical trumpet career to become a daring and distinguished improviser, Joe Alessi adhered to an orchestral path. He has carved out a niche as one of the Philharmonic’s in-house jazz literates, which endeared him to visiting musicians like the Japanese piano virtuoso Makoto Ozone.

In 2017, when Ozone performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the NY Phil, he also played an engagement at Birdland with his mentor, vibraphonist Gary Burton, who’d embarked on one last tour before retirement. “Maestro Alan Gilbert invited me to go with him, and I played that night as well — just something easy,” Alessi says. “But they also did ‘Brasilia,’ by Chick Corea.”

“I’ve been trying to convince a composer of that stature to write a trombone concerto,” he adds. “I was unsuccessful with John Adams and John Williams, and people like that. But when I heard ‘Brasilia’ that night, something came over me, and I said, ‘God, I wonder if Chick Corea would ever write a trombone concerto. So Makoto texted him — and the next day, Makoto said, ‘Yes, he’s interested, and here is his phone number.’”

Corea had a deep and sustained engagement with classical music — first instilled by an early teacher, the concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, with whom he began studying at age 8. Even as he was forging his career as a jazz pianist, Corea was drawing inspiration from the music of Mozart, Bartók, Stravinsky, Scarlatti and Scriabin. On a commission from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in the early 1980s, he wrote a Septet for Winds, Strings and Piano, later recording it for ECM. He also composed a piano concerto, which he performed and recorded with the London Philharmonic in 1999.

But Alessi recalls that when he first called to discuss writing the concerto, Corea expressed hesitation, owing to past experience with time limitations and stylistic rigidity in the ranks of some orchestras. “So I assured him that, hey, we can learn things really fast at the Philharmonic,” Alessi says, “and we’re very flexible, and can pretty much play any style of music. After he heard that, he came by the New York Philharmonic and talked to some of our musicians and got this really great, warm feeling about it.”

courtesy of the artist

Corea invited Alessi to pay him a visit at home in Clearwater, Florida — a trip that he made twice, as the piece was taking shape. “He made me feel so welcome,” Alessi says. “We played together — I was a little intimidated about that — but we played, and he got some ideas. I went back again, and he showed me some sketches and I played those sketches for him.”

The score for “Concerto for Trombone,” which was orchestrated by Corea’s friend and collaborator John Dickson, begins with a notation for the featured soloist: “Free solo - improvise whenever.” This was a point of discussion early on. “Chick said, ‘Let’s start with the trombone by itself,’” Alessi recalls. “I thought that was great, because there are hardly any trombone concerti out there that start with just the trombone.”

In concert footage from São Paulo and Tokyo, Alessi seizes the opportunity, improvising in a clear, assertive mode that recalls the influence of modern jazz masters like Bill Watrous. The piece then sidles into its first section, titled “A Stroll,” and inspired by Corea’s fond perambulations on the isle of Manhattan. A martial snare drum figure underpins a heraldic trombone fanfare. A piano glissando gradually establishes a walking tempo. Strings and brass coalesce around a major key, in a tonal language that calls Aaron Copland to mind.

The second section is a drifting waltz, more in tune with the impressionist language of Erik Satie. It’s the calm before the storm of a third section, “Hysteria,” suffused with the spiky chromaticism that Corea’s longtime admirers will recognize from albums like Three Quartets. “Interval-wise, and how it lays on the trombone, it’s really awkward,” Alessi admits. “When I first got the piece, I practiced that movement for two days straight. It was during the pandemic, and I think I drove my family nuts, because I kept playing this thing. I wanted to show Chick, ‘Hey, I can learn this piece in two days.’”

Chick Corea.
Chick Corea Productions
Chick Corea.

Another formidable challenge presents itself in the fourth and final movement, a distinctly Corea-esque tango — but here you could say that Alessi was asking for it. “Originally each of these movements ended quietly and calmly,” he says. “And I wanted a big finish, you know?” Corea obliged his request with a high F sharp that heroically repeats several times.

“You get what you wish for,” Alessi chuckles. But he also adds that the register isn’t the biggest stretch: “The hardest thing about it really is the intervals. They are not usual intervals or patterns.”

The silvery aplomb that Alessi brings to his performance is a testament to his rare facility on the horn — but he hopes that the concerto will enter the active repertory for trombonists, in jazz as well as classical fields. (He plays alongside Marshall Gilkes, Eijiro Nakagawa and Brandt Attema in the chamber quartet Slide Monsters, and it’s not hard to imagine any one of them taking a crack at it.)

For now, Alessi says he is mindful of the responsibility he holds. “Up until this point, I’ve been the caretaker of the performances,” he says. “The musical mind of Chick Corea will live on forever, and so will his spirit. So to be part of this and to join classical music with jazz through this composition — it's an unbelievable opportunity for me, but a chance to honor him as well.”

Joseph Alessi will perform Chick Corea's 'Concerto For Trombone' on Thursday, Friday and Saturday with Marin Alsop and the New York Philharmonic; find tickets here.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.