Pianist Stewy von Wattenwyl, a rising star in his native Switzerland (where they even know how to pronounce his name), invited one of America's outstanding young tenor saxophonists, Eric Alexander, to accompany his trio last spring on a ten-day tour of Swiss nightspots, one evening of which was recorded at the Bird's Eye club in Basel.
Alexander, who recently turned thirty-five, is a throwback to the days when jazz soloists valued story-telling and interplay above all else, using their technique (which Alexander has in abundance) to form a powerful emotional bond with the listener. It's almost impossible to listen to Alexander's persuasive conceptions without becoming enamored by what he has to say.
Like role models Dexter Gordon and George Coleman, he's most at home on straight-ahead swingers but cruises confidently through von Wattenwyl's more free-ranging ballad, "Olivia." Alexander placed second this year among the tenor saxophone's "rising stars" in Down Beat magazine's critics' poll and did so without my help (I voted for him as best tenor saxophonist, as I have for the past three years).
While von Wattenwyl generously assigns his prominent guest the lion's share of the blowing space, he's an eloquent soloist in his own right, which he shows whenever Alexander steps aside to let the trio raise its colors. Stewy (pronounced "Steh-vee") reminds me at times of the superlative Kenny Barron, with whose high-flying composition "Voyage" the quartet ends the concert. The curtain-raiser, Alexander's "Second Milestone" (also the title of his recent album on that label), is another scorcher on which Eric's extended solo fairly crackles with resourcefulness and power. Good as that is, he's even better on Henry Mancini's graceful "Moment to Moment," a textbook lesson in how to refresh and enliven a ballad.
Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," which follows, is taken at a leisurely pace, more so than Antonio Carlos Jobim's usually placid "O Grande Amor," a medium-up bossa that embodies another well-crafted solo by Alexander, splendid work by the trio and an inexplicable fade-out at the end. If there's a downside to this otherwise splendid in-person date, it lies in the mix, which places von Wattenwyl and drummer Peter Horisberger in the forefront, making it seem as though the listener were seated not in the center of the club but a few feet removed from Stewy's piano and Peter's drum kit. The imbalance is most conspicuous on the faster numbers, "Milestone" and "Voyage," on which von Wattenwyl's comping, even when subdued, sounds more intrusive than supportive, as do Horisberger's cymbals and snares.
Apart from that modest blemish there's nothing to censure, as Alexander and the trio are clearly at the top of their form and have produced a marvelous album that's unequivocally buoyant and ship-shape from stem to stern.