By OWEN McNALLY, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant
4:34 p.m. EST, February 20, 2012
No matter what configuration he's playing in — whether big, roomy ensembles or his own intimate, modern jazz combo — you can rely on trumpeter Ricky Alfonso to create something fresh, thoughtful and expressive with his solo ventures that are deeply reflective yet universally affective.
The Bridgeport native, whose luminous trumpet artistry has brightened the Greater Hartford jazz scene for three decades, leads his fine, tight quartet in performances Sunday afternoon, Feb. 26, at the red-hot Baby Grand Jazz series at the Hartford Public Library and on Friday night, Feb. 24, at the Buttonwood Tree in Middletown.
Alfonso, who doubles on cornet and also sings, leads his working quartet featuring pianist Chris Casey, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Tido Holtkamp. They play Sunday at 3 p.m. at the downtown library, which has become one of the hottest, coziest jazz roosts in town, and Friday at 8 p.m. at the Buttonwood Tree, 605 Main St., Middletown.
Beginning with gigs at Hartford's legendary 880 Club in the 1980s and through his association with the late Bill Barron, the great saxophonist/composer/educator at Wesleyan University, Alfonso has played with a virtual "Who's Who" of top regional and national musicians, including Mario Pavone, Bill Lowe, Ed Blackwell, Thomas Chapin, Mike Mussilami, Bill Lowe, Claire Arenius, Niki Mathis, Joe Fonda, Ralph laLama, Norman Gaga, Don DePalma, Bob DePalma, Frank Varella and many others.
Born into a musical family, he began on trumpet at 9, receiving his first trumpet from his father, a professional musician and educator who played accordion and piano. Music reigned supreme in the Alfonso household, which was often packed with his father's young accordion students.
Like his father, Alfonso became both a respected professional musician and a dedicated music teacher. Alfonso, who has a degree in music education from the University of Connecticut, is a full-time teacher specializing in early childhood music education in a public school setting and private trumpet instruction in his home studio.
"My father was a marvelous musician and knew all the standards. My two older brothers were musicians, but I was the only one who stayed with music. My big jazz music influence was an older brother, a tenor saxophonist, who'd come home with jazz records by Miles, Monk and others," Alfonso says by phone from his home in South Windsor.
Early on, when he was 9 or 10, Alfonso experienced a life-shaping epiphany when, on a small black-and-white TV screen at home, he saw Miles Davis play his moving solo rendition of "Bye Bye Blackbird."
"I remember that vividly like it was yesterday. I heard Miles' Harmon mute solo on that tune and thought, 'Oh, man this is where it's at.' "
Through his years at Bridgeport Central High School, Alfonso played in the jazz band, concert band and marching band, won awards, spent extra hours happily practicing in the band room and performed at the Quinnipiac Jazz Festival, which was then run by trumpeter Sonny Costanzo. He even got to meet trumpet great Clark Terry.
As a youngster, he played in rock and funk bands. And in the early seventies, he performed and recorded in the horn section of the backup band for the legendary rock-and-blues singer Joe Cocker, touring throughout the United States and Europe.
"Joe is a great guy. I haven't seen him in many years, We had a great time. It was all rock 'n roll," he recalls.
When he transitioned from rock back to jazz, his early love, Alfonso was greatly assisted by the noted trumpeter Bob Zottola, a veteran who played with Chick Corea, The Count Basie Orchestra and for many years in the Broadway pit band for "Les Misérables."
Alfonso also cites his connection in the mid-1980s with Barron as another influential turning point in his career. Besides playing gigs with Barron, he worked as an adjunct trumpet instructor in Barron's celebrated jazz program at Wesleyan in Middletown.
"I got to know Bill as a person, a regular, beautiful cat to be with and always very encouraging. His wise advice to students always was, 'Man, just play what you know.' "