Friday, May 13, 2011

Eric Alexander "Don't Follow The Crowd"

If jazz today has a brand, then saxophonist Eric Alexander is its standards bearer. He upholds the tradition and champions the cause like no other instrumentalist from the contemporary jazz realm. Two decades and dozens of recordings into his career, Alexander has flourished while the power of many of his peers has faded, disappeared or proved to be nothing more than just imitative exuberance.

Think about it. How many others in the current pool of so-called jazz players can claim to have the distinct sound Eric Alexander possesses—a trait of long-dead jazz pioneers—without dressing the music up in some sort of contrived artifice? Ain't but a few of 'em. And it's especially true among the ranks of Eric Alexander's generation.

Eric Alexander is nothing if not beautifully consistent. He never waves flags or lobs claims about achieving something no one else has like so many others do and he never goes off-topic to prove some sort of benign individualism. He honors the tradition and, more importantly, pays repeated homage to his forbearers, who it seems he's very thankful for and for whom he is audibly appreciative. Still, he comes across as his own man.

He is always surrounded by the usual suspects—in one of his working quartets or as part of One For All—all of whom number among jazz's busiest and most stimulating accompanists.

His programs nearly always feature fairly well-known and tuneful covers—tastefully reconsidered in nearly all cases to sound personalized and timeless, no matter what era the music's from—and hardly ever opens the worn-out fake book of jazz standards and done-to-death Tin Pan Alley trash (the Gentle Ballads series excepted). And his originals all have that solid melodic invention that those old Prestige and Blue Note albums possess.

Part of the reason for that is that the same man who captured many of those jazz classics often records Eric Alexander. The great Rudy Van Gelder provides Eric Alexander with a platform that superbly captures his uniqueness and Eric Alexander repays his legendary recording engineer with music that is thoughtfully considered and passionately delivered.

All of this is to say that Eric Alexander's latest, Don't Follow The Crowd (HighNote, 2011), is more of the same from the tenor saxophonist and, more than most jazz discs that come out these days, is a typically pleasurable experience from start to finish.

Don't Follow The Crowd catches Eric Alexander in his long-running quartet featuring the great Memphis-born pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Nat Reeves (who alternates in this quartet with John Webber) and the ubiquitous drummer Joe Farnsworth. It's this group's follow-up to last year's Revival of the Fittest, and truly a sound to behold. Each member of the quartet is a significant contributor to the overall agenda and each audibly relies on the other to achieve what they do together.

The program is comprised of the usual collection of originals and unpredictable covers. The saxophonist contributes “Nomor Senterbress" and “Remix Blues," considers three film themes ("Charade," “Don't Misunderstand" from Shaft's Big Score and “Cavatina from 'The Deer Hunter'"), covers Michael Jackson's pop classic “She's Out of My Life" and investigates such little-known jazz gems as smooth jazz guitarist Steve Briody's “Footsteps" (originally from his 2006 album Keep on Talkin') and bassist Bill Lee's “Don't Follow the Crowd" (originally from an obscure 1962 Frank Strozier album that featured both the composer and Harold Mabern).

It's yet another well-conceived program that never alludes to the wild disparity of the music's origins. This quartet delivers these tunes as if they (the musicians and the music) are all of a mind and that good music is always good music, regardless of genre or generation.

Unfortunately, pianist Harold Mabern contributes no originals to the program—always a highlight of any Eric Alexander Quartet album. But his keen ear for a good tune, matched only by a keen hand to take a tune somewhere different and exciting, resulted in the inclusion of “Footsteps," “Charade" and “Don't Follow the Crowd" to the program. There's little doubt that Mabern is a significant catalyst in this group's continued success.

It's hard to say that any one Eric Alexander Quartet recording is any better than any other or that this particular one ranks at the top, if it's even possible to construct such a hierarchy. But Don't Follow the Crowd is not only a terrific place to start enjoying jazz giant Eric Alexander but also a tremendous addition to the worthy two-decade long discography this group has contributed to the jazz lexicon.


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Anonymous said...

I was googling Eric Alexander (for reviews of his Venus records) and found this and other blog entries about his work. It's nice to get reaffirmation that I'm not crazy in thinking him to be one of the most important musicians on the scene today-- and this, despite the kind of massive exposure on record that would probably prove fatal to someone with lesser ideas and a weaker identity as a musician. Keep up the good work!