Eric Alexander Quartet: Prime Time
After more than fifteen years on the scene, Eric Alexander deserves his due as one of today's top tenor saxophonists. He has trained and toughed it out with some of the best musicians in the business, and is a player possessing both accessibility and intelligence. Prime Time, which features Alexander backed by a rhythm section drawn from his several gigging bands, offers valuable insight into his career and mindset.
Recorded at a concert in Asheville, North Carolina in spring of 2007, the HighNote package includes a CD with seven songs together with a DVD of the performance that includes a few other tracks. Although the sound balance on the CD is occasionally weighted too far in favor of the piano, the acoustic quality in the theater where the quartet played is warm and engaging.
Live jazz recordings are always a double-edged sword: while offering the possibility of impromptu moments of brilliance, they also bear the imperfections of an actual performance rather than a meticulously crafted studio date. Consequently, Prime Time, like so many other live discs, is an enlightening artifact, showing how the Eric Alexander Quartet works, even when the playing is not at its most innovative.
For the most part, the concert comes across as a normal working day for the band. The musicians seem comfortable with each other, and the selection of tunes suits them. However, there are only rare occasions when it feels like the individual players are reaching out or transcending their comfort zone. Alexander has the capacity to be a truly powerful player: when he is on, his blowing is a fast-paced stream of concepts and fluid melodies. Here, though, he as well as the rest of the band seems a little uninspired, playing on a high level without breaking into any new territory.
For example, drummer Joe Farnsworth, who has been Alexander's right-hand man for some time, plays with great attention, but never pushes himself to the fore of the quartet. Still, on the DVD's "Yasashiku," there's a tremendous pleasure in watching the interplay between him and David Hazeltine at the piano, making for a satisfying and cohesive piece.
Sadly, some of the best tracks from the performance are the ones that only appear on one or other of the two discs, not both. "Some Other Time," a touching Leonard Bernstein ballad that Alexander plays as a duet with piano, is only included on the CD, whereas the inventive saxophone solo on "First Impression" and the delicate original "Yasashiku" are only featured on the DVD. The six tracks that appear on both discs are all good performances, but it seems that the highlights of the set have been obscured by questionable production choices.
The film of the concert is an enjoyable opportunity to watch the musicians. Andy O'Neil, a local North Carolina filmmaker, finesses the performance perhaps overmuch with a series of cross-fades and close-up shots. Fundamentally, though, filming a concert is never an easy task, because any effort that the director makes to augment the imageeven just a close-up on the soloisttakes away from the sense of a full-group dynamic.
The real strength of the DVD comes from the insightful interviews with Alexander, filmed on the day of the concert. In conversation, he is erudite and considerate; most striking, though, is his modesty. While many important tenor players are known for a degree of bravado and cocksureness, Alexander talks plainly and openly about what he is and is not able to do, and how he views his career. He readily admits that he simply wants to establish his voice, even though it is "not necessarily because that's some groundbreaking stuff that we never heard... No, I know that's not going to be the case." Such humility makes it easy to forget that Alexander is one of the best horn players in the country.
At the end of the interview, Alexander discusses the balance between having a family and being a touring musician. With great optimism, he states that "in maybe fifteen years," when his children have gotten old enough, he looks forward to returning to the obsessive practice regime he kept during college. Few artists approach their craft with such patience.
Ultimately, the frank views of his own abilities make Alexander all the more impressive. With his continual rise as one of the major voices in straight-ahead jazz today, Prime Time will become increasingly useful as an artifact charting his development.
Tracks: CD: Blues Like; One For Steve; Little Lucas; Pearls; Some Other Time; We All Love Eddie Harris; Nemesis.
Personnel: Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone; David Hazeltine: piano; John Webber: bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums.