Peter Epstein Quartet

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Breathing new life into the classic Ornette Coleman alto/trumpet/bass/drums quartet format, saxophonist Peter Epstein and collaborators Ralph Alessi, Sam Minaie and Mark Ferber play melodically inventive originals with “total commitment to the music, to each other, and to the moment at hand.”
– Mark Werlin, NativeDSD/HRAudio

Alto/soprano saxophonist Peter Epstein left New York in the early 2000s, but his 2007 quartet was made up of colleagues he had been performing with for between 15 and 25 years, although not in this grouping. Epstein notes the intimate and personal qualities of their shared conceptual and aesthetic views. “In my mind, in my ear, I simply hear these guys playing when music ‘plays’ in my head.” It’s not surprising then that this record feels so cohesive and lived-in: there’s a nuanced clarity of communication, a focus and immediacy that only comes with what he describes as “such a relaxed but total commitment to the music, to each other, and to the moment at hand.”

Epstein’s compositions range from primarily quiet, introspective pieces like “Polarity” to more intense, uptempo numbers like “Hurtle” and “Constance” and the mid-tempo “Email from Nigeria”, a 10/8 tune that perhaps harkens back to his deep engagement with Ewe drumming as a student at CalArts in the 90s. He has a knack for writing interesting melodies and pieces with contrasting sections or ambiguous moods, but sees the written material as almost secondary. “The tunes need life and vibe and interpretation breathed into them by the collaborators that I rely on so heavily.” And here that produces a mercurial, hard-to-pin-down, highly internalized synthesis of many strands of jazz history and influences from outside the music (for example, the mathematically vertiginous metrical subdivisions of South Indian classical music, another music Peter has studied). Also, and it might be partly the instrumentation, there’s surely some kind of spiritual connection (if not a close stylistic one) with Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet with Don Cherry.

Peter Epstein, alto & soprano saxophone, compositions
Ralph Alessi, trumpet, cornet
Sam Minaie, bass
Mark Ferber, drums


Please note that the below previews are loaded as 44.1 kHz / 16 bit.
Tiny Expanding Universe
Forever Now
Old Yarn
Email from Nigeria

Total time: 01:05:40

Additional information





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Audio Engineer

Bryan Pugh


Masterd by Graemme Brown at Zen Mastering.


Mixed by Sam Minaie


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Original Recording Format

Recording Location

Recorded June 13, 2013 at The Bunker Studio, Brooklyn NY.

Release DateJune 28, 2024

Press reviews


From the first out-of-tempo double-stopped bass drone and loose unison moan by alto sax and trumpet, you know you’re not in mainstream bebop-land any more. Saxophonist Peter Epstein, a former New Yorker who now runs the jazz studies program at the University of Nevada, Reno, writes the kind of pieces that could as easily be called structured improvisations as compositions. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t attractive themes throughout this CD, the kind of forms that serve as armatures for free exploration.

“Tiny Expanding Universe” enters on a bass solo, then settles into a loose groove, opens into free counterpoint between alto sax and trumpet, and expands for an ardent, minor-tinged theme. Fortunately, Epstein is with people who know how to play this stuff. Bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Mark Ferber are descended from that school of intuitive rhythm teams whose defining masters were probably Charlie Haden and Paul Motian: They know how to make the beat felt without stating it. And trumpeter Ralph Alessi is Epstein’s match in fashioning varied lines that coil and relax over those rhythms with flowing eloquence.

The band understands simple things, like how to make an entrance. After one of Epstein’s notestuffed frenzies (“Forever Now”), Alessi enters with soft, warbling whole notes. Meanwhile, thanks to Minaie and Ferber, that through-line rhythmic pulse never goes slack. There are also more conventional pleasures to be had here—the driving 10/8 folkloric groove of “Email From Nigeria,” the sprightly soprano-trumpet theme of “Hurtle” and the pervasive bebop phrasing throughout.

The album could actually use more of those tight, peppy song forms. And yet, every moment of this CD is thoroughly engaging. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re singing your songs in the land of the free.

Improvised Blog

(…) Epstein has the perfect front line partner in Ralph Alessi, who can play in or out with equal skill. They work well with each other, trading lines and overlapping in that tight yet loose way that seems to define today’s more adventurous jazz albums. I wasn’t familiar with bassist Sam Minaie, but he and drummer Ferber hook up to provide a seamless ebb and flow to support the horns. Together, the four musicians pull off a neat trick for a group with this lineup: They don’t immediately make you think of the classic Ornette Coleman quartet.

Jazz Word

Completely assured throughout the CD, whether the piece calls for rubato explorations or plunger breaks, Alessi’s trumpet work references Miles Davis and his cornet Don Cherry; but the end product is completely original. It’s the same for Epstein’s writing, which throughout suggest a mixture of delicacy and definition. As director of UNR’s program in jazz and improvisational music, it’s obvious he’s internalized West Coast jazz, Jazz Messenger hard bop, early Ornette Coleman and Swing Era tropes. But while his compositions in part nod towards these antecedents, the results are organic and individual.

Unlike some of the chancier choices one can gamble on in Reno, betting on the high quality of Polarities is an almost guaranteed sure thing.


One does not often hear jazz that achieves this measure of modernity, swing and acute listening in group improvisation. The quartet — Epstein (reeds), Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Sam Minaie (contrabass), Mark Ferber (drum kit) — enliven Epstein’s original works with truly ESP-like sensitivity and communication, propelling the music with a tautness and relaxed poise that is maintained throughout.

The compositions employ deft rhythmic and melodic/harmonic invention that remains true to the traditions of leaving things songlike so as to afford the greatest opportunity for the players to fill out the form. Echoes of early Dave Holland compete with nods to Steve Lacy’s terse yet charming rhymes, and it all comes together with an ease that belies its complexity. This is great jazz that exists in a sea of jazz blandness.

Musique Machine

Saxophonist/composer/bandleader Peter Epstein and his band play a cerebral iteration of classically informed post bop with complex, meandering head melodies inspired by the likes of John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, whose asymmetrical, oddly composed figures may at first sound improvised, until played again verbatim in their vast entireties. With 9 diverse pieces spanning 65 minutes, Epstein’s group covers a huge amount of ground.


If 60 – 70’s hard bop is the sort of brainfood you require, this album is an authentic example of contemporary, original music in that vein, and doesn’t feel forced, or limited by this ‘vintage’ feeling, as so many do. I loved every moment of this album, it’s surely destined to be a modern classic, and very nearly on the level with its towering influences. Peter Epstein is an extraordinary musical mind.


Polarities presents as a wholly cohesive album, yet each track is an island unto itself. One piece may come off as the sound of the search (“Old Yarn”); another composition may be set in motion by rhythms that are jittery, funky, and bubbly all at once, setting the stage for a down-the-road sparring match between two horns (“Forever Now”); and another may simply represent four men set adrift, drawn toward and away from one another. Some tracks give pause to admire the power of singular musicians at work, but others draw attention away from the individual, focusing on connection and separation of ideas. Listeners get to hear Alessi let loose (“Tiny Expanding Universe”) and observe Epstein unleashed (“Email From Nigeria”), but this isn’t music that’s completely centered on soloists; it’s music of a higher order that’s filled with endless surprises, continually coming in and out of focus, expanding and contracting in fascinating ways.

None of these tracks are cut from the same mold, or any mold for that matter, but they’re all connected by the push-and-pull, join-and-repel notions of polarity.


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