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 Tuesday, 01 December 2015
CD Review: Eric Alexander's “It’s All in the Game” PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Monday, 22 May 2006
Image“…a tenor saxophonist who can play at all tempos, in all registers, and never without swinging mightily”—George Kanzler, Hot House

In the past decade, tenor saxman Eric Alexander, now 37, has more than lived up to his Young Lion hype. The 2003 Jazz Week Musician of the Year, Alexander released his amazing 18th recording as leader this spring, It’s All in the Game (High Note). It only reinforces what has been clear from his work of the past decade—Alexander is one of the leading talents of modern tenor saxophone.

Eric Alexander

Born in Galesburg, IL and raised in Olympia, Washington, Alexander first learned piano at age six, then clarinet at nine, and moved to alto sax at 12. With a strong classical background, Alexander became obsessed with jazz as a student at Indiana University and converted to tenor. Transferring to William Paterson College in New Jersey, he studied with Harold Mabern, Joe Lovano, and Rufus Reid. "The people I listened to in college are still the cats that are influencing me today," says Alexander. "Monk, Dizzy, Sonny Stitt, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson--the legacy left by Bird and all the bebop pioneers, that language and that feel, that's the bread and butter of everything I do. George Coleman remains a big influence because of his very hip harmonic approach, and I'm still listening all the time to Coltrane because I feel that, even in the wildest moments of his mid- to late-Sixties solos, I can find these little kernels of melodic information and find ways to employ them in my own playing."


Settling in Chicago initially, Alexander impressed organist Charles Earland, with whom he made a number of trio recordings, including his debut as sideman, Unforgettable (1991, Muse). In 1991, Alexander placed second behind Joshua Redman in the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. He soon moved to New York, performing at The Blue Note, The Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil's, Small's, and The Iridium, appearing with Cecil Payne, Harold Mabern, Eddie Henderson, Larry Willis, Kenny Barron, Freddie Cole, Pat Martino, and Cedar Walton, among others. After his first release as a leader, Straight Up (Delmark, 1992), he went on to record with CrissCross and Alfa, and formed the hard bop sextet, One for All, with Jim Rotondi, Steve Davis, Joe Farnsworth, Peter Washington, and Dave Hazeltine; to date the group has released eight recordings. In addition to One for All, Eric performs regularly with his quartet, which these days usually features former mentor Harold Mabern on piano, Joe Farnsworth on drums, and John Webber, Peter Washington or Nat Reeves on bass. And he’s issued one great recording after another, most recently on High Note with Nightlife in Tokyo (2003), Dead Center (2005), and the newly released It’s All in the Game.

Whether with sextet or quartet, Alexander describes his musical mission as “assembling good musicians that I'm comfortable playing with, getting quality material--a combination of originals and standards and perhaps some new arrangements on standard tunes--and trying to make the kind of a recording that a jazz fan or musician can put on and enjoy listening to from start to finish.”

Photo bt Andrea Canter

It’s All in the Game

“I want the sound to have a strong impact, but also to be pleasant…a combination of brightness and mellowness,” says Eric Alexander in the liner notes for It’s All in the Game. And “bright and mellow” are good descriptors for this project which brings Alexander together with his long-time mentor and keyboard chairman, Harold Mabern, his usual percussion partner Joe Farnsworth, and often-collaborator bassist Nat Reeves. And while Alexander is not known as an on-the-edge experimentalist, his latest recording further reinforces the difference between mainstream versus mundane, accessible versus predictable, swinging versus coasting. Muses John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and George Coleman are close at hand as Alexander and company tackle tunes from the popular canon, a jazz classic, and three of Eric’s original compositions in a superbly executed set. The artistry of the four musicians is further enhanced by the signature gorgeous sound from the legendary studio of Rudy Van Gelder.

Alexander’s star is rising fast as a composer as well as performer. “Typhoon 11”is described by Eric as “a one chord tune that got a little wild” with a touch of Latin flavoring. Mabern provides an extended solo, his chordal vamp and swirling right hand combined with Farnsworth’s percussive drive evoking the tempest in the title. Alexander’s improvisation adds to the fury, climbing up and town the tenor staircase and executing some devilish fluttering spirals. Alexander notes that his “Open and Shut” starts out with open intervals morphing into a minor blues. His initial series of short phrases spin an intricate web before Mabern translates that minor blues into a major romp. Reeves proves to be master of the blues himself while Farnsworth encourages an extended conversation between cymbal and snare. A twisty theme brings enchantment to “Little Lucas,” names for Alexander’s one-year-old son.

photo by Andrea Canter

Pianist Mabern suggested two tunes less familiar within jazz, the title and closing tracks. “It’s All in the Game” was a hit for such icons as Sammy Kaye, Dinah Shore, the Four Tops, Van Morrison, and Elton John, but it was Keith Jarrett’s solo rendition of the Charles Dawes classic that inspired Alexander to record it, with Mabern’s urging. Evoking the dance floor of a 50s prom night, Alexander works through a simply beautiful melody line rendered sumptuous by his clear, glowing tone. Alexander adds an array of embellishments on his second solo, but on the outchorus returns to the more simple sweet line, moving up to the higher end of the horn. The Jules Styne classic and Marilyn Monroe vehicle “Bye Bye Baby” provides a “bright and mellow” closer. Mabern notes that it was a tune that would have fit Coltrane--taking a melody at breakneck speed. Alexander proves worthy of the comparison, as this track shows off his great articulation at high velocity.

Rogers and Hart’s “Where or When” is hardly a jazz classic but Alexander’s treatment leaves one wondering, “why not?” Generally at a more upbeat tempo than usual, by the second chorus, Alexander is off and running with twisting climbs and descents, Farnsworth’s endless hi-hats providing the forward drive. In turn, Mabern matches Alexander’s speed and exuberance, his single lines shifting to chordal progressions. After engaging in some back and forth volleys with Farnsworth, Alexander delivers a more melodic closing chorus. Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack turned “Where is the Love” into a soulful pop classic, but here Eric Alexander translates it to jazz without sappiness, preserving a danceable groove propelled by the rhythm section. The melody gives way easily to improvisation, and Alexander’s magnificent tone is only matched by his melodic inventions. Crisp phrases from Mabern sail over Reeves’ sturdy bass framework and Farnsworth’s ever-present pulse.

Monk’s “Ruby My Dear” is the only track to qualify as a jazz standard, and there is nothing standard about Alexander’s upbeat arrangement, taking an improvisor’s approach to a melody often played straight. It’s less angular than many of Monk’s works, which may open the door more readily to modification. Notes Eric, “It’s a beautiful melody, and the chord progression is very interesting. If you play all of the passing chords Monk used, there’s a lot of material.” And Alexander explores the wealth of material, finding treasures and mining each gem without getting tedious, varying his strategies from fluttering wisps, meaty arpeggios, and evocative swirls.

But the whole is greater than the sum of its tracks. It’s All in the Game is the most recent—and arguably best-- in a growing lineage of assertive releases from an ever-evolving talent. From Eric Alexander, this is a command performance.

For more information about Eric Alexander including his extensive discography, see

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