Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eric Alexander On The Side

The prolific tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander has recorded as abundantly as a sideman or “special guest” on other musicians’ discs as he has been recorded on his own. This doesn’t even count the many discs he’s made as part of the “One For All” all-star collective for the American Sharp Nine, Dutch Criss Cross and Japanese Venus labels.

Happily, the man has never had to beg for recording opportunities. Apparently they all come looking for him. Eric Alexander even makes a comfortable living from his music. Yes, he’s worked hard for it and deserves it. Considering not only the long history of great jazz players who have nearly starved for their art but, even more incredibly, the anemic state of jazz today and the current business of music itself, this is nothing short of a miraculous blessing for fans of good music.

Surprisingly, Eric Alexander never gets hoodwinked into crassly commercial crap or bizarre fusions that don’t match his particular thing. In his two-decade recording career, Eric Alexander has been a remarkably consistent player: always soulful and swinging and most mindfully melodic, particularly in his engaging songlike solos and always in a bag that could be described as his own.

The measly listing which follows is, by no means, intended to serve as any sort of complete coverage of Eric Alexander’s many, many sideman dates. The music under review here features some of the more notable sides of Eric Alexander’s sideman sides and those that deserve consideration in the wholeness of Eric Alexander’s extremely extended recorded universe. Perhaps others will discover these “sides” to appreciate the fullness of Eric Alexander’s joyful sound.

Kiss of Fire – Harold Mabern Trio/Special Guest Eric Alexander (Venus, 2002): The great Memphis pianist Harold Mabern is a significant mentor to Eric Alexander, having taught him very early on and been a member of one of the saxophonist’s primary working groups for nearly two decades now. The two have recorded some 13 discs together (to date) under Alexander’s name, as well as three discs with baritone legend Cecil Payne, one 1997 disc with trumpeter and One For All pal Jim Rotundi, a 1997 disc with trombonist and One For All pal Steve Davis, and a 2003 disc with the great drummer Joe Farnsworth (also of One For All), a frequent collaborator of both musicians and the drummer featured on this disc. This December 2001 recording, made a few weeks before Alexander’s Summit Meeting, also with Mabern and Farnsworth, is the only disc thus far under pianist Harold Mabern’s name that also features Eric Alexander. It’s a grand, swinging affair in Mabern’s long tradition of fine, melodically stylish presentations. Eric Alexander shines on four of the disc’s ten pieces: Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” Jimmy Van Heusen’s lovely “Nancy (With The Laughing Face),” Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake” (first heard on the sax legend’s 1962 Blue Note classic Go!) and a seemingly speedy take on the rather silly “Brazil.” Unfortunately, there are no Mabern originals here. But it is of little matter. Mabern is a masterful and most distinct stylist, something he displays throughout this enchanting disc, and proves that he has found a perfectly complimentary foil in the great Eric Alexander. Mabern and Alexander make for a purely magical combination.

Smokin’ Out Loud – Mike LeDonne (Savant, 2003): Every Tuesday night at a New York City club called Smoke, pianist Mike LeDonne has held court as the leader of a Hammond B3 organ jazz combo, often featuring tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. This studio outing, recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, presents the pianist as an organist in his Smoke setting with Eric Alexander in tow throughout. It is not only pianist LeDonne’s first appearance on disc as an organist – and quite a fine one at that – but also one of the keyboardist’s earliest recordings with Eric Alexander (Alexander first played with LeDonne on the pianist’s 1998 Double Time disc Then & Now and has since been featured on Alexander’s Gentle Ballads series of discs on Venus). Alexander is especially inspired in this setting, which is a joy since, with the exception of his great 1995 Eric Alexander In Europe and his 1997 Alexander The Great, the saxophonist hardly ever records in an organ combo. LeDonne and Alexander are exceptionally well partnered here and receive the superbly fine accompaniment of guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Together, this quartet has concocted a tremendous program that ranks among the best work all participants have laid down to disc. LeDonne’s organic signature seems most inspired by Charles Earland, notably on the inspired and soulful take of EW&F’s otherwise icky “After the Love Has Gone” and the two (!) covers of otherwise slushy Carpenters tunes, “Superstar” and “The Long to Be Close to You.” But there are any number of other influences actively at work here, especially given the program at hand (“One For Don,” for Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith’s “You’ll See,” etc.). LeDonne displays no fear whatsoever on the organ and contributes some spectacularly inspired playing as well as two engaging originals, “One For Don” and “Silverdust” (for Horace Silver) and most remarkably spins, pardon the accidental pun, silver out of hay on “Delilah” (one of the disc’s best moments), “After The Love Has Gone,” Donald Byrd’s little-know “French Spice,” originally heard on the trumpeter’s 1961 album Free Form, and the little-known Howard McGee gem “Pisces Soul,” originally from a 1968 Don Patterson album called Boppin’ and Burnin’. Everything about Smokin’ Out Loud (lots of fire references, huh? Oh, and originals first laid down by Rudy Van Gelder) reminds one of those great old Prestige recordings from the late 60s. Nothing wrong with that. All in all, this is a great quartet playing great together and a joy to hear over and over again. No matter how you slice it, this is one of the decade’s more notable recordings – for all concerned. For Mike LeDonne, Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein and Joe Farnsworth are all truly smoking here.

Close Up – Jim Snidero Featuring Eric Alexander (Milestone, 2004): Alto saxophonist Jim Snidero came up in the bands of Brother Jack McDuff and Toshiko Akiyoshi before launching out on his own in the mid eighties. Since the mid nineties, he has frequently played and recorded with David Hazeltine, as has the pianist’s fellow One For All band mate Eric Alexander. Aside from the fact that both Snidero and Alexander were recording for, among others, the Milestone label at the time, it is probably Hazeltine that united the two saxophonists for this, their only recording together. It’s a shame Snidero isn’t better known. He’s a marvelously swinging alto player of some fettle and finesse who thankfully doesn’t immediately call to mind an earlier or greater player. Ok, maybe there’s a little bit of Sonny Stitt in the phrasing. But just a little. Snidero’s real mark comes as a composer of some note. He often composes much of what he performs, a real rarity in today’s jazz, and his music bears a unique logic that’s very much in the tradition of strong post-bop composition (he also marvelously arranged his own lovely 2003 album Strings). Eric Alexander appears on five of this typically straight-ahead date’s eight tracks, “Close Up,” “Nippon Blue” (without Hazeltine), “Blues for the Moment,” “Reality” (the disc’s highlight) and “Smash” – all Snidero compositions. The two saxophonists complement one another particularly well. This isn’t one of those cutting competitions of yore, but rather an exchange of ideas between two players with many particularly good, melodic ideas.

Shifting Sands – Bob DeVos (Savant, 2005): Guitarist Bob DeVos has had a spotty career on records. His first known appearance was as part of Groove Holmes’ album Good Vibrations (Muse, 1977). Seemingly, then, he just vanished, though still active in any number of name-band organ groups, only to turn up two decades later on Charles Earland’s Blowin’ The Blues Away (HighNote, 1997), which also featured Eric Alexander. DeVos and Alexander went onto play extensively with Earland until the Mighty Burner’s sudden death in 1999 and together they waxed a fine tribute to the B3 master with Keepers of the Flame (2000). DeVos has since launched into his own solo career, often getting big wigs like Gene Ludwig and Billy James to appear on his consistently engaging recordings. There is nothing spotty about this guy’s playing. Usually framed quite nicely in an organic groove, DeVos is a wonderfully warm player whose every note is drenched in a bluesy, soulful passion. The program here is dominated by DeVos’s sparkling organ trio originals. But the album’s brightest moment comes when the guitarist travels fearlessly into Antonio Carlos Jobim’s wondrously colorful and too-little known “Mojave” (introduced by the composer on his 1967 CTI album Wave). The lead-off track, “Lost And Found” is yet another highlight. Eric Alexander is heard to particularly good effect on three of this fine album’s nine mostly mid-tempo tunes, “Three/Four Miss C,” a song written for DeVos’s wife which affectionately recalls the many Stanley Turrentine/Shirley Scott minor-key blues of the sixties, “Track and Field” and another rather Turrentine-esque take on “Willow Weep For Me.” The tenor saxophonist isn’t often heard with a guitar, which makes Shifting Sands even more compelling. But it is worth noting how much the saxophonist tones down his fiery instincts to a low burn in order to complement the guitarist. Rather than overpower the soloist or this particular player’s considerably soulful palette, Alexander adds just the right amount of color and light.

On Fire – Mike LeDonne (Savant, 2006): While the title may serve as a pun on this group’s working engagement at the Smoke club in New York City, it also aptly describes the music within – something of a rarity in the pun-filled jazz world. The difference between this set and the previous studio-recording Smokin’ Out Loud (2003) is that this recording captures the group live at one (well, two) of its Smoke gigs. Leader LeDonne, here manning the Hammond B3 throughout, again shows a marked affinity for Jimmy Smith (“At Long Last Love” – even though the best-known organ version of this tune is Grant Green’s 1965 recording with Larry Young), Don Patterson (“Prayer for Mary,” “In The Bag”) and Charles Earland (“Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”), even covering – rather remarkably – the Mighty Burner’s great “Spinky” (first heard on the composer’s 1972 album Live at the Lighthouse), which both saxist Eric Alexander and guitarist Peter Bernstein shred with some of their best playing. There are any number of nice surprises here, including Earland’s “Spinky,” a well-deserved meditation on Duke Pearson’s ingenious “Idle Moments” (first heard on Grant Green’s sensational 1964 Blue Note album of the same name and finding Alexander to be nothing at all like Joe Henderson), the Coltrane-meets-Dr. Lonnie Smith groove (check out the Doctor’s take on “Afro Blue”) of LeDonne’s wonderful “Prayer For Mary,” Peter Bernstein’s “Bones,” where Alexander does call up the ghost of Joe Henderson and Nat Adderley’s effortlessly grooving “In The Bag” (something the great composer/coronet player first recorded on his 1962 album of the same name, but this version probably originates from Sonny Stitt’s cover on the 1966 album Deuces Wild) – which elicits LeDonne’s finest performance on the disc. Another great moment in this group’s evolving legacy, this album’s highlights are undoubtedly “Spinky,” “Idle Moments,” “Prayer for Mary” and “In The Bag.”

Playing For Keeps – Bob DeVos (Savant, 2007): Eric Alexander reunites with Bob DeVos for the guitarist’s third Savant album. The album also reassembles the guitarist’s Shifting Sands trio with the tremendously interesting Dan Kostelnik on organ and Steve Johns on drums. There is a higher caliber of jazz staples here than before, mixed with a few of the guitarist’s totally in-the-pocket originals. Eric Alexander features on four of the disc’s ten tracks, DeVos’s very Pat Martino-like “And So It Goes,” the tenor player’s testing ground and most recorded song in all of jazz (despite the fact that Alexander’s only recorded it once before), “Body and Soul,” an oddly but not unattractively slowed-down version of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” (with a spot-on terrific solo by Alexander which touches many points, but alludes often to some of Harris’s finest playing) and the swinging “Wes Is More,” a tribute to Wes Montgomery’s craftsmanship rather than the guitarist’s sound or style. Alexander, of course, plays for keeps when soloing and sounds superb throughout. DeVos has crafted a program that is much more suited to Alexander’s groove than before, without sacrificing too much of his own particular voice. But, as before, it is quite nice to hear Alexander paired with a guitarist, especially one who brings out more of Alexander’s soulful side as Bob DeVos does so nicely here.

FiveLive – Mike LeDonne (Savant, 2007): Recorded live at the Smoke club in New York City, this October 2007 set finds Mike LeDonne paired again with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth throughout. But this time the leader is heard exclusively and rather splendidly on acoustic piano, his primary axe, with guitarist Peter Bernstein replaced by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and bassist John Webber. It’s a quartet that gives the album its peculiarly spelled title. The liners indicate that “(t)his is the kind of record I’ve always wanted to make. Everybody is just playing – not trying to prove anything – and we’re all able to just let it fly.” Truer words may never have been uttered, particularly in defense of something that needs no defending whatsoever. Everyone is in their element here. The excellent program as presented is a potent mix of sweet LeDonne originals, peppered with several nicely chosen covers (Stevie Wonder’s “You and I” and Cedar Walton’s “Bleeker Street Theme,” the pianist’s regular set closer) and jazz standards (Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” and Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad”). All of it smokes, but LeDonne’s originals are particularly nice – the too-familiar and Tynersque “Encounter,” the Harold Mabern-esque “Hands,” which the composer dedicates to the truly inspiring Memphis pianist, and the Ray Charles-inspired “Little M” – dedicated to the composer’s young daughter, Mary. Mike LeDonne establishes a tremendously invigorating set, laying down some marvelous solos and providing a forum for his cohorts to pontificate most pleasingly. LeDonne is refreshingly provocative at all the right turns and reverential, almost to a fault. But the combination is unyieldingly attractive. Eric Alexander shines throughout, particularly on “Encounter,” “Manteca,” “Little M” (which witnesses Pelt’s best moment on the disc, on muted trumpet) and “Bleeker Street Theme.” But trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who has not been recorded before or since with LeDonne or Alexander, is a particularly nice foil for the group. This is yet another wonderful outing under Mike LeDonne’s name featuring tenor saxophone great Eric Alexander.

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