A Chat With Eric Alexander
One of the few "young lions" who is more influenced by Dexter Gordon and George Coleman than by John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander has come very far with his career in a short period of time. Following his first year of studying classical music at Indiana University as an alto player, Alexander picked up the tenor, made the switch to jazz, and the following year transferred to William Patterson College in New Jersey. In 1991 Alexander finished second to Joshua Redman in the Thelonious Monk Institute's tenor saxophone competition. He also worked frequently in the Chicago area with Charles Earland, Jack McDuff, and Cecil Payne, to name just a few, before heading to New York. Since his arrival there, he's continued to develop his approach and sound (the one element he takes most seriously) and record often as both a leader and frequent sideman. He is also a part of the hard bop collective One For All, which features trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Joe Farnsworth.
All About Jazz: When did you first start playing the saxophone and when did you get interested in jazz, in particular?
Eric Alexander: I started playing saxophone at age 12 after having failed miserably as a clarinetist in my junior high band in Olympia WA. A few of my friends were also saxophone players at the time and this created a healthy, semi-competitive environment. I had a casual interest in jazz as early as junior high, but didn't really start checking out important recordings or listening intently to great saxophonists until age 18, while spending a year at Indiana University.
AAJ: Who are some of your main influences?
EA: My first and most important influences are Bird, Trane, and Sonny Stitt. After absorbing a lot from them I spent quite a bit of time trying to sound like Dexter and Ammons. Recently my most important influence has been George Coleman. He's been not only a mentor but a good friend as well and I feel that he is certainly one of the most important saxophonists in the development of the modern saxophone technique.
AAJ: You spent some time working and recording in Chicago. Tell us about that experience.
EA: I spent only about two years in Chicago immediately after graduating college, but those were very important years to me as I got my first professional experience playing clubs on the South side and met the man who gave me all of my first major opportunities (recording and gigs), Charles Earland.
AAJ: When did you decide to make the move to New York?
EA: I moved to NYC in May of '92 because I felt that I had grown enough in Chicago that I would be ready for that highly competitive scene.
AAJ: How did you get the chance to record with Criss Cross?
EA: John Swana, a wonderful trumpeter who has been recording for that label for years, heard me with Earland at the Mellon Festival in Philly in '92 and recommended me to Criss Cross president Gerry Teekens.
AAJ: How did the group One For All come about?
EA: One for All was a natural outgrowth of a group of friends who had been playing together for years at a club in NYC called Augie's. We simply decided at some point that we needed to start writing for our sextet and seeking out recording opportunities.
AAJ: Tell us about your new Milestone release.
EA: The First Milestone is an appropriate title for this record as it is my recording debut for my new label (MilestoneMan With a Horn was originally done for a Japanese company) and a milestone in my career, as I was able to hire not only my favorite rhythm section for the date but also include the great guitarist Pat Martino on three tunes. Interestingly, the date almost never came off. We were scheduled to go into Rudy Van Gelder's studio that day (the only day I was able to catch everyone when they had a break from their busy schedules), but a storm knocked out his power. Luckily, producer Todd Barkan was able to sneak us in to Clinton studios with Troy Halderson, who did a hell of a last minute job as engineer.
AAJ: Of all your albums, which one are you most proud of?
EA: I am most proud of my two most recent releasesAlexander The Great (which I did not title, to set the record straight) on High Note and The First Milestone.
AAJ: What future projects do you have in the works?
EA: I'll be back in the studio for Milestone sometime near the end of the year and I am in the process now of considering possible material. I'll be touring Japan for three weeks in July and August, and among other things here and there, I am really looking forward to my first appearance as a leader at the Village Vanguard coming up on October 31 through November 5.