Cries of “jazz is dead” are so easy to join nowadays that it’s hardly worth making the argument anymore. Sure, many continue to debate the pointless issue. Down Beat devoted a whole issue to the topic recently. Even the venerable Newsweek made some sort of weird case refuting it a month or two ago.
It’s such a moot point. As Duke Ellington once said long ago, “there is good music and the other kind.” Restricting music to genre definitions seems almost meaningless these days, especially as hardly any notable jazz has been issued in the last, well, three decades.
Good copy-cat jazz? Oh, there’s been plenty of that. Who needs another Miles Davis tribute? Or another Miles Davis-sounding player? It’s easy enough to buy a Miles Davis CD and enjoy something that was new and different when new and different didn’t mean doing something someone else did before.
Say what you will. Cite what you will cite. There aren’t more than a handful of people that would agree on any landmark “jazz” recording or noteworthy jazz-related event in the last 30 or so years.
The tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander (b. 1968) is one of jazz’s exceptions and, happily, one of its brightest lights. While, unfortunately, stuck in a meaningless jazz time warp, Eric Alexander has produced countless examples of fine musicality and much worthy “product” and plays and records with a productivity that not too many others can match.
In a phrase, it is pure pleasure to listen to Eric Alexander. Alexander possesses a universe of influences (George Coleman, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, etc.), but he is a galaxy of sound all his own. His phrasing and intonation, his style and sonority and his collaborative consistency are all unique and could only come from him. It’s something worth appreciating over and over again.
The following recordings, some of the first under Alexander’s own name, which date back nearly two decades ago now, are definitive. These discs represent the formative nature of Eric Alexander’s thinking and document some of the great passion he has for the tradition and his refusal to merely replicate what has been done before.
After many, many discs on jazz’s most vaunted – and few surviving – labels such as Milestone, Alfa, Sharp Nine, HighNote/Savant and Venus, Eric Alexander is proving to be unstoppable in his intuition, integrity and imagination. He’s never had to go looking for a recording opportunity either. In one of jazz’s few success stories, the record companies come looking for him – a lot and repeatedly.
He’s also been paired with any number of great contemporaries (Jim Rotundi, John Webber, Joe Farnsworth) and musical legends, particularly in the keyboard domain. Keyboardists of note that Eric Alexander can be heard with quite often include the great Harold Mabern (one of Alexander’s teachers and a mentor), David Hazeltine and Mike LeDonne as well as Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton and John Hicks. There are also all the organists: Charles Earland, Melvin Rhyne, Joey DeFrancesco and Larry Goldings, among others, too.
Upon reflection, these Delmark discs stand out, particularly when one considers all that came after these initial recordings. These few discs mark the very first chapter in the Eric Alexander story and a most exciting place to start an ongoing jazz adventure.
Straight Up (Delmark, 1992): Although Eric Alexander’s solo debut suggests, in both spirit and configuration, one of the old Hank Mobley-Lee Morgan Blue Note dates of the 1960s, this is an assured and, quite frankly, original beginning to the tenor player’s remarkable trajectory that has nothing to do with something that’s been done before. Neither Mobley nor Morgan ever touched any of this material – nor had they ever sounded as free and easy or, dare we suggest, as happy as Eric Alexander does here. In 1993, this disc may have seemed traditionally trivial, too then-in old school or too, pardon the awful colloquialism, “been there, done that.” But in light of not only surviving but exceeding the drudgery of two decades worth of mostly worthless “jazz,” Eric Alexander has proven that he has great insights, great fortitude, great taste, healthy appetites and an eminently appealing stance in the music (he believes in good melodies, wherever they come from, and constructing song-like solos like John Coltrane once did, without needing to quote John Coltrane to make his point). All the signs were there and they appear in abundance on Straight Up. Partnered here with the great Memphis piano legend Harold Mabern and fellow young lions Jim Rotundi, inspired and interesting on trumpet, John Webber on bass and Chicago-based George Fludas on drums, Alexander fronts the group exceptionally well, as if he’s leading a team that he knows will only work if all contribute effectively. Mabern is the glue that holds it all together and, no doubt, lends the sage’s air of timelessness that this set most assuredly achieves. He is in his rakin’ and scrapin’ groove throughout. The program bristles with choices that are either immaculately chosen (“Be My Love,” “Blues Waltz,” “An Oscar For Treadwell”) or startlingly executed (“What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life,” “Laura,” and most surprisingly, the bossa nova take of “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing”). The date’s only original, Alexander’s “Straight Up,” is especially appealing, eliciting grand playing from all involved. This is jazz the way it was meant to be heard: enjoyable without being obvious and challenging without being unlistenable.
Up, Over & Out (Delmark, 1993): After recording an album for the Dutch Criss Cross label and co-leading a standards-oriented Delmark disc with fellow tenor player Lin Halliday, Eric Alexander laid down his second “Up” disc, this 1993 quartet session – not issued until 1995 – featuring the great pianist Harold Mabern, bassist John Ore and the drummer Joe Farnsworth, who has since recorded frequently with both Alexander and Mabern. The rhythm section was paired with Alexander a few months earlier on baritone sax legend Cecil Payne’s Delmark album Cerupa and reconvenes here, providing the tenor player with his first-ever recorded sole horn spot. The shoes are big, if they are to be filled and Alexander knows it, responding in kind to the responsibility that is his charge. Throughout, Alexander displays his fondness for George Coleman (a Memphis native like pianist Harold Mabern, the two have worked together throughout both of their careers) and his soulful conceptions, but finds a way to engage even more fervently and with more zeal than even the great George Coleman has hitherto displayed. On the whole, the disc is structured like one of the great Dexter Gordon quartet records, mixing war-horse standards with challenging jazz compositions and a couple of surprises. Indeed it is the surprises that impress most and include the title track, a little-known cover of Hank Mobley’s “Up, Over & Out,” originally performed on Mobley’s 1968 Blue Note album Reach Out, Cecil Payne’s “Flying Fish,” which dates back to a 1968 Strata-East record, and Mabern’s unique-to-this-session (?) “Blues for Mabe.” The standards here include “The Nearness of You,” “Bewitched” and “I Remember Clifford” and while each is competently performed, they seem more like necessary exposition than impassioned experiences. Also on tap here are the little covered “Eronel” and the delightfully expounded “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are,” both tunes by Thelonius Monk, who bassist John Ore spent a great deal of time playing with in the fifties and the sixties. Indeed, Ore is afforded generous space on both tunes (Ore solos nicely on “Blues for Mabe” too). While it’s all good, this disc is probably higher-than-average class filler for more meaty samples of what Eric Alexander has since accomplished and is assuredly much more capable of. But it’s still worthwhile on any number of levels.
Mode For Mabes (Delmark, 1997): By the time of his third and final Delmark recording, Eric Alexander had already relocated from Chicago (where Delmark is based) to New York and recorded three albums for the Dutch Criss Cross label, Man With A Horn (with Cedar Walton) for Milestone, the wonderful Alexander The Great (with Charles Earland) for HighNote and the first of the “One For All” discs for Sharp Nine. Since Up, Over & Out, the tenor player had also only partnered with pianist Harold Mabern on Cecil Payne’s 1996 disc Scotch And Milk. But here Alexander returns to Chicago with Mabern, where, lest it be forgotten, the pianist got his start in the late fifties as part of the MJT + 3, for another exuberant and entrancing recording. The tenor-trumpet-trombone front line hints at John Coltrane’s Blue Train, but Mode For Mabes suggests a very different brew altogether. (Interesting oddity: Blue Train bassist Paul Chambers can be heard on other versions of this album’s “Sugar Ray,” “For Heaven’s Sake,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” “Stairway to the Stars” and “Naima” – all the songs that are not new to Mode For Mabes and mostly all with John Coltrane in the lead.) The difference is probably the soulful authority that Eric Alexander, trumpeter Jim Rotundi, trombonist Steve Davis and, most especially, pianist Harold Mabern bring to the proceedings. It’s not soulful in the usual way that critics often praise with faint damnation. It’s soulful in the true sense of the word. These guys feel the music and play to it. These are talented cats that, in addition to delivering the expected chills and thrills of melodic delivery and unique improvisation, are having a damned good time just playing the music. Highlights are plentiful and include Alexander and Rotundi’s title track, surely dedicated to the date’s pianist, whose signature sound is nicely spotlighted here; Phineas Newborn’s “Sugar Ray,” previously performed by fellow Memphis accolade Mabern on the 1990 Japanese compilation 100 Gold Fingers; trombonist Steve Davis’s Lee Morgan-like “Erik The Red” (where Alexander makes a particularly strong case as a powerful, melodically-endowed soloist – like his mentor, Harold Mabern, who also solos magnificently here); the Blakey-like intensity of Alexander and Rotundi’s “Stay Straight;” the terpsichorean quartet reading of “Stairway to the Stars,” a particularly excellent feature for Alexander’s lovely, swinging approach (and another Mabern model of pianistic nobility) and something which Coltrane performed with Milt Jackson on the great 1959 album Bags And Trane; and, of course, a particularly rousing take on Coltrane’s “Naima,” which Mabern – who is mesmerizing here – had previously recorded with George Coleman in 1981 and as part of a 1983 Jamey Aebersold play-along set. Eric Alexander shines most splendidly on “Naima” as well, capping off a shining disc in a rather sparkling – and capacious! – discography.
Postscript: Considering all the Coltrane references listed here, it is worth noting that Eric Alexander does not cover any of the aforementioned Coltrane material on his recent Venus quartet disc, Chim Chim Cheree, a sort of John Coltrane on Impulse tribute, which also features pianist Harold Mabern and bassist John Webber from Mode For Mabes.