© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Developing your sound is a lifelong endeavor. Ninety percent of the practicing I do is working on my sound."
"I guess more than anything, strong piano players make me play better: the stronger they are, the more in my face, the better I play. It's almost like I don't have to come up with anything on my own — they just steer me along.”
"I've always been partial to soulful playing, the stuff that connects with people; to me, that's everything. I don't want to play down to people, but I always want to maintain those elements that have made jazz what it is."
"I'm just not interested in that kind of obligation right now," he says with easy acceptance. "I don't really want to be in charge yet. I'd really rather be in other people's bands, because I feel I have a lot to learn in that respect. I'd just like to play my role within the larger context."
"I think I'm just naturally akin to that kind of sound and phrasing [referring to Dexter Gordon.] More than anything, I've always loved the bigger sounds. But harmonically, I'm more in tune with people like Hank Mobley — even though I don't particularly sound like him — and Sonny Stitt, for sure. When I first delved into playing, I sort of lived and breathed Sonny Stitt, because he was just so perfect."
"Right now, I just pick tunes that really reflect where my heart lies, the kind that feel most comfortable, most natural. But I find that different tunes lead my solos in different ways, so I pick them with an understanding of what kind of solo each tune will bring out of me."
- Eric Alexander, tenor saxophonist
It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty-five years since I first heard tenor saxophonist performing on record, but then, most things these days “seem like it was just yesterday." [Eric turns 50 in August of this year]
The occasion was his 1992 New York Calling Criss Cross Jazz CD  which I bought at the time primarily because it featured Kenny Washington on drums.
Boy, was I in for a big surprise as in addition to Eric's super playing, the disc also introduced me to John Swana on trumpet; Richard Wyands, piano and Peter Washington, bass along with Kenny round out a first-rate rhythm section.
Since then, Eric has gone on to develop a formidable career in the Jazz - not an easy thing to do these days - with his own quartet which is usually made up of Harold Mabern on piano, John Webber on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums.
John and Joe also join Eric when he performs with the group One for All, a unit that is very much reminiscent of the classic Art Blakey Sextet. Pianist David Hazeltine joins John and Joe in the rhythm section and Jim Rotondi on trumpet and Steve Davis on trombone make up the front-line along with Eric.
Eric is also a member of Mike LeDonne’s Hammond B-3 organ Quartet along with Peter Bernstein on guitar and Joe Farnsworth once again on drums. Eric works regularly with Mike’s combo at Smoke’s in New York City.
Either leading his own group or as a member of One for All or Mike LeDonne’s foursome, Eric is a fixture on the New York Jazz scene as well as the International Jazz Festival circuit and makes frequent trips to Japan and to Chicago [he was born in Galesburg, IL, about 200 miles west of Chicago].
Over the past 25 years, Eric has made over two dozen recordings as leader for labels including Delmark, Hep, Milestone, Criss Cross, Sharp Nine, Venus and High Note. You can locate information about these recordings by clicking on the following link to Eric’s page on Discogs.
Eric talked about his early and formative Jazz experiences in The Windy City and The Big Apple with Neil Tesser who incorporated them into the following insert notes to New York Calling [Criss Cross Jazz CD 1077].
New York Calling
“In some ways. Eric Alexander at 25 is just an old-fashioned boy. When he lifts the tenor saxophone to his lips, the notes spill out on a plush carpet of sound that brings to mind the sax founts of earlier years: Hawkins, Gordon, Rollins, Coltrane, and the giant-toned Chicago tenor men, like Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin, Ira Sullivan, and Von Freeman. ("Developing your sound is a lifelong endeavor," Alexander admits with a mixture of awe and pride. "Ninety percent of the practicing I do is working on my sound.")
He prefers a rhythm section that shoves right up against him — accompanists who rank subtlety several notches below unadorned swing and the independent line. You can find the model for this hard-driving, no-holds-barred style in the explosive fire of bebop and the earthy percussion patterns of the 50s, that decade when hard-bop roamed the planet. ("I guess more than anything, strong piano players make me play better: the stronger they are, the more in my face, the better I play. It's almost like I don't have to come up with anything on my own — they just steer me along.)
He insists, with sure instincts about jazz's earliest roots, that his music communicates above all with immediacy and warmth — one reason he has long loved the soulful organ bands of the 50s and 60s. No wonder, then, that when he arrived in Chicago, shortly after college, he quickly made his way onto the city's south side club scene, and from there into the touring band led by the organist Charles Earland. ("I've always been partial to soulful playing, the stuff that connects with people; to me, that's everything. I don't want to play down to people, but I always want to maintain those elements that have made jazz what it is.")
The old-fashioned can become suddenly new, though, in the right context. For instance, we live in a time when a truckload of jazz's young lions can barely restrain themselves from establishing their own bands; so when Alexander states his desire to hook on as a sideman with established mentors, it strikes us as something novel. ("I'm just not interested in that kind of obligation right now," he says with easy acceptance. "I don't really want to be in charge yet. I'd really rather be in other people's bands, because I feel I have a lot to learn in that respect. I'd just like to play my role within the larger context.")
And in an era way past the demise of the cutting session, the "battles of the bands," and the idea that competition gets in the way of music's loftier goals, Eric Alexander arrives largely as the result of a contest — the Thelonious Monk Institute's 1991 competition for tenor saxophonists, in which he finished second to Joshua Redman (and a notch above his Criss Cross labelmate, Chris Potter). Not bad for a guy who started playing the tenor — in fact, who had begun concentrating on jazz at all — just five years earlier.
Born in 1968 in western Illinois, Alexander grew up in Washington state, but headed back to the midwest to attend Indiana University — as an alto saxophonist studying classical music. Before that year ended, however, he had discovered an unexpected affinity for jazz, leading him to transfer to the exceptional jazz program at William Paterson College in New Jersey.
He had also discovered the tenor saxophone, in a story worthy of those "girl-next-door" stories that dot fiction and cinema, and always seem too obvious to be true.
Alexander's father had purchased a tenor sax for him years earlier, but he had paid little attention to it. "The first time I really played the tenor was at a wedding gig, my freshman year in college," he remembers. "It was just a borrowed horn, but it just felt so much better than the alto did." In fact, says Alexander, it felt better than the alto ever did, even though he had been playing the smaller horn for more than five years. "It was right at that point that I decided I wanted to switch to jazz. The alto felt so horrible to me afterwards that to this day, I haven't been able to play it at all." Not long after making this recording, Alexander simply sold his alto, with the firm conviction that he had found his one true instrumental love.
Any chorus of any tune on this album and you'll understand the romance. Despite Alexander's protestations about the work he must do on his tone, he commands a huge and supple sound: like an extension of his own voice, it suggests that tenor players are in fact born, not made. He devours chord changes, the more the better, with both an inviting urgency and a focus on the details of finding new linkages between those changes: eloquent testimony to his tireless study of harmony. And his pinpoint control of the time allows him to regularly lag ever-so-slightly behind the beat, giving even his most ferocious improvisations the unflappable quality of a man truly in charge.
For all those reasons, Alexander's playing has drawn comparisons to that of Dexter Gordon. Alexander certainly doesn't mind such comments (Dexter being one of the many tenorists who've shaped his music); but he quickly points out that any such similarities involve something other than conscious imitation: "I think I'm just naturally akin to that kind of sound and phrasing. More than anything, I've always loved the bigger sounds. But harmonically, I'm more in tune with people like Hank Mobley — even though I don't particularly sound like him — and Sonny Stitt, for sure. When I first delved into playing, I sort of lived and breathed Sonny Stitt, because he was just so perfect." Don't ignore, either, the important guidance of Von Freeman, the legendary Chicago saxist who regularly presides over late-night blowing sessions at which he encourages younger players with both his words and his remarkable musical actions.
Alexander's Chicago experience remains a pivotal one for the saxist, who surfaced in the midwest shortly after college. "I was always kind of obsessed with living there; my mother's family is from Chicago, and of course, I was fascinated with the idea of playing with those organ groups on the south side." After his time with Charles Earland, Alexander heard New York's call, settling there in the summer of 1992; but he has re-created his Chicago jam-session experiences with sessions at the club named Augie's, where he can be found most weekends performing with such storied older players as the baritone saxist Cecil Payne and the altoist John Jenkins.
Alexander's Criss Cross debut finds him in the company of John Swana, the great Philadelphia trumpeter whose two Criss Cross albums have showcased his pure melodies and effervescent tone — and a rhythm section with whom Alexander knew he could comfortably work. After all, pianist Richard Wyands, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington made up the rhythm section that boosted Alexander to his second-place finish at the Monk competition. The two unrelated Washingtons have developed a tasteful, versatile, and potent partnership reminiscent of earlier such pairings (Paul Chambers & Philly Jo Jones; Bob Cranshaw & Billy Higgins). But it takes nothing away from them to suggest you pay special heed to the solos, and even moreso the accompaniments, of Wyands, a mature and steadying player who was one of the young tenorist's instructors at William Paterson.
Alexander selected the material for this date without much fuss: "Right now, I just pick tunes that really reflect where my heart lies, the kind that feel most comfortable, most natural. But I find that different tunes lead my solos in different ways, so I pick them with an understanding of what kind of solo each tune will bring out of me." New York Calling resembles a typical, well-spiced Eric Alexander set, with highlights everywhere. You'll find your own: I lean toward the Rollinsesque nature of his version of Swedish Schnapps, as well as the way he has turned Wives And Lovers into an Afro-Cuban dynamo . And anyone who chooses to resurrect the lovely and forgotten Arthur Schwartz ballad Then I'll Be Tired Of You — with verse intact, no less! — deserves kudos for that alone.
In the early part of this century, the American novelist Edith Wharton spoke of what she considered a "common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before." Eric Alexander, like many of his contemporaries, has no such fear. But his utter mastery of the jazz fundamentals sets him quite apart from most of the pack. That skill allows him to provide new twists on old ideas — which here serve as brand-new inspirations to a saxophonist of unquestioned accomplishment and boundless promise.”
You can check out Eric’s powerful and propulsive tenor playing on the following video montage that features his original composition One for M which is the opening track on New York Calling.