"Nemesis," the opening track of Eric Alexander’s latest release, Nightlife in Tokyo,
encapsulates within its twisting motif and exotic garb both the positive and negative qualities of the album. The motif is compelling, but only because it is so reminiscent of Coltrane tracks like “India” and “Naima.” The tune provides a utilitarian launching pad for Alexander’s skillful, well-developed, well-blown tenor improvisations, but fails to provide enough fuel to ignite truly burning runs. That said, it is certainly a well-crafted piece, just like all the material on the album. Even so the overall result feels somehow unsatisfying, and the real problem is that it’s frustratingly difficult to figure out why.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Alexander knows his saxophone, and knows almost everything there is to know about the players that have preceded him on the instrument. In cases like these, however, it remains questionable how essentially good this exhaustive familiarity actually is. Alexander’s compositions display versatility and a great sense of balance. His tone is rich and cultured. He knows when to bend and when to remain firm, his phrasing is always right on the money, and he interacts well with his rhythm section. As is often the case on albums like this, it’s just this interaction which provides the most compelling listening material. Ron Carter’s bass work stands out, particularly on the relatively driving title track, “Nightlife in Tokyo."
In fact, there is no point where the instrumentation, phrasing, tone quality, or note choice stand out as particularly unappealing. In fact, that may be the problem. There is a deliberateness to Alexander’s playing which makes his smooth tone feel too controlled and his Coltrane-esque squiggles and tremolos too calculated. It often feels like there are two Alexanders playing simultaneously: the first initiating the impulse, and the second checking that impulse against an enormous file of technique, phrases, and historic data. This becomes increasingly notable on slower ballads like “I’ll Be Around” than on the edgier, harder tunes such as the already mentioned “Nemisis” and the album’s stand-out piece, “Cold Smoke.”
Overall, this is a solid, straight ahead album that once again reveals Alexander’s tone control and dexterity. There are individual moments and tunes that will without doubt capture the attention of individual listeners. Each listener will most likely identify a favorite tune or two, just as this reviewer has. However, over time the individual tracks tend to bleed together, just as much of today’s jazz output does as a whole, to create a rather homogeneous landscape.
Personnel: Eric Alexander: Tenor Saxophone;
Ron Carter: Bass;
Joe Farnsworth: Drums.