Eric Alexander: power and invention
The great jazz guitarist Joe Pass used to remind aspiring musicians that accomplished players pay particular attention to the end of a tune, closing it with a distinct and improvised statement.
It's an art that can be lost in an era of pop music formulas and electronic wizardry - even in jazz, as some artists may stick to the written page.
But for tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, strong endings come with the territory. Rooted in the hard-bop style of half a century ago, the veteran New York musician delivered an intense two sets of jazz standards Saturday night at St. Paul's Artist Quarter.
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Perhaps in a nod to the master musicians in whose footsteps he follows, Alexander closed his tunes in varied ways -- sometimes with a flourish and at others with a hard stop. But he also left nothing to chance as he introduced or developed them, luring his audience with brief touches of melody before launching into improvised streams.
In what was likely his 10th Memorial Day Weekend performance at the Artists Quarter in as many years, Alexander came out swinging on "Night Has One Thousand Eyes," playing with precision, a crisp tone and sharp phrases.
Backed by a local trio of Bryan Nichols on piano, Willard Peterson on bass and Artist Quarter owner Kenny Horst on drums, Alexander offered a vibrant show from start to finish, clearly showing that there is new ground to cover in a repertoire of classic tunes.
The show was in many ways a look back, given that the tunes were from an earlier era. But it went beyond nostalgia, offering new renditions that gave Alexander a platform to power his way through tunes that touched on a variety of styles, from blues to bossa nova. He also crafted them in inventive ways, helped by band's selection of different chord changes and beats.
Alexander, who plays in low and mid-range tones, is a bit professorial in his demeanor and stage presence. But he can be loose at times, embellishing his playing with ripples of notes or squeals. At others, he added light touches to piano and bass solos from offstage.
He can also caress a tune's notes with feeling, as he did in a gentle rendition of "Tenderly."
In a generous nod to his accompanists, Alexander left them plenty of time and space for lengthy runs, and on several tunes engaged in Horst in vigorous back-and-forth exchanges between saxophone and drums.
On occasion the other musicians performed as a trio, and remarkably so. Peterson, who has a soulful delivery, played with imagination, particularly on the Miles Davis tune "The Theme," citing Thelonious Monk and opening the door for Nichols to follow him.
If, as the youngest person on stage, Nichols may have had any jitters beforehand about playing with such an accomplished performer, they were quickly erased. Putting aside his experiments with more modern music, the pianist settled in comfortably, enriching the tunes with lush chord changes and sparking lines.
This kind of music may never be popular with a mass audience again, but it is worth exploring and regularly reinventing. There's nothing like hearing classic compositions the way they were meant to be played by musicians who know how to turn a phrase and surprise the audience -- from start to finish.