In the early 2000s, Dominic Lalli, now one half of the electronica duo Big Gigantic, was gunning to be a professional jazz musician. The tenor saxophonist was working on a master’s degree in jazz arts at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with luminaries such as Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer and Dick Oatts. Despite Lalli's solid education, it was tough for him — or anybody — to find success in New York and, well, eat.
“Unless you're one of the best players, things can be difficult,” Lalli admits. “Or you're a real savvy business guy, and I'm not so much that, either.”
So there he was, with no gigs to make money but rent to pay, when he learned that the Boulder-based jazz/funk/Afrobeat group the Motet was looking for a sax player. He sent the band's drummer and bandleader, Dave Watts, a demo tape and sat in when the group played in New York.
He started touring with the Motet in 2005 and moved to Boulder that same year. He played regular gigs at Dazzle in Denver with Pat Bianchi and the Ninth & Lincoln Orchestra, and taught at the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts.
Lalli, who grew up in Las Vegas, had been honing his traditional-jazz chops for years. But when a trumpeter friend at the Manhattan School had him listen to Björk’s electronic-centric albums Vespertine and Homogenic in the early 2000s, his entire direction in music began to shift.
"The music was so creative to me, but also...everything sounded so fresh," he recalls. "So that first piqued my interest." He would continue to experiment more with electronic music through his work with the Motet.
"We were playing Afrobeat music, and then I had a little synthesizer, and we were jamming electronic-like sets in the middle of these Afrobeat songs," he remembers.
When he met producer Alex Botwin, aka Paper Diamond, the saxophonist delved even further into electronica, studying the music-production suite Ableton.
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"I would play stuff over his beats, and then I would peek over his shoulder and try to learn a couple things with Ableton," Lalli says. "And that's pretty much how it all started. I've been using it every day since I picked it up."
Merging his jazz musicianship with electronica, he formed Big Gigantic in 2009 with drummer Jeremy Salken. Although the duo found some success by 2010, Lalli wasn’t quite able to support himself with that project, so he was working at a coffee shop and playing jazz gigs when he could.
That year, he recorded an album with his jazz band, the Bluebird Quintet, later dubbing it A Blind Man’s Blue. Some of the city’s best jazz players, including trumpeters Ron Miles and Greg Gisbert, pianist Eric Gunnison, bassist Bijoux Barbosa and drummer Rudy Royston, worked on the album.
But as Big Gigantic blew up, drawing in fans with its unique mix of improv and electronica, Lalli put A Blind Man's Blue and his jazz career on hold.
“I started realizing that as much time as I put it into Big Gigantic, it was all going to come directly right back on me,” Lalli says. “If I put a lot of energy into it, I’m going to get a lot back. If I put a little bit into it, I'm going to get a little back. I feel like in life, you don't necessarily get a lot of opportunities like that. Obviously, I'm super-excited that I took that opportunity. And I think for me, one of the main reasons I also went in that direction is because I started realizing that I love writing music.”
Lalli had composed or arranged some of the songs that ended up on A Blind Man’s Blue. He'd written “Emerald Isles,” “Bluebird” and “Better Place” and arranged the music for the Miles Davis cut “Joshua” while working toward his master’s degree. He also reworked the standard “Golden Earrings” — popularized by Peggy Lee in 1947 — as well as George Gershwin’s “Love Walked In.”
“In hearing them now, they still feel pretty fresh to me,” he says. “They still hold up today. I'm super-proud of those compositions. And that's what I love about jazz music. Obviously, I love improvising — that's a huge thing for me, too — but I just love writing something that can stick."
Since Lalli has spent the past decade focusing on Big Gigantic, he never found the time to finish A Blind Man’s Blue...until COVID-19 upended the music world and forced the duo to cancel its tour in support of the new album Free Your Mind. The tour was scheduled to start in March and would have included two nights headlining Red Rocks.
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With his calendar clear, Lalli finally had time to mix and master A Blind Man’s Blue, which was released on July 10 (with a vinyl version set for September). The title cut refers to a beautiful struggle, he explains. The chords, harmony and melody illuminate that struggle in the first part of the song, before the bridge creates a sense of hope. “You find your own happiness at the end," he adds.
Spending so much time in March and April revisiting his older material and working on A Blind Man’s Blue has given Lalli a new outlook on composing and arranging.
“It really helps my writing with Big Gigantic,” he says. “And I think even with Big G, there's a creative space within being simple and doing simple things. I think I can learn from that — from my jazz writing, too. I can learn a little bit from each side, but I think it was definitely good for me to poke my head out and look around at everything that's possible around me.”
Hear Lalli's album at Dominic Lalli's Fanlink page.