Eric Alexander, the most fearsome young lion of them all, even looks the part on his “official” debut recording for Milestone Records — pensive, unsmiling, saxophone case in hand, primed and ready for another day of jungle warfare whose chief purpose is not so much to vanquish his musical peers as to earn their respect, something the hard–working tenor has been accomplishing with relative ease since he placed second nearly a decade ago in the Thelonious Monk Institute’s saxophone competition. As the Avis rental car ads used to avow, being second only makes Alexander try harder. He has amassed a discography, as leader and sideman, that’s almost as long as one’s arm, and his learning curve has been bending steadily upward. Yes, his Dexter Gordon / George Coleman roots remain conspicuous, but don’t let that dissuade you; Alexander is more than ever his own man, absorbing the lessons he’s learned from his mentors and guiding them along fresh and provocative new byways. In short, he knows how to build an impressive solo, one that seems to embody the heart and soul of Eric Alexander and no one else (for spine–tingling examples, spin “Night Song” or “I’m Glad There Is You”). He’s accompanied here by a topnotch rhythm section comprised of longtime friends and associates — muscular pianist Harold Mabern, metronomic bassist Peter Washington, reliable drummer Joe Farnsworth — and, on four tracks, by sure–fingered guitarist Pat Martino, hale, hearty and swinging as in the good old days before a brain aneurysm interrupted his promising career. If The First Milestone has a downside, it lies in the leader’s choice of material, which isn’t as persuasive as one might wish. The standards — “Last Night When We Were Young,” “I’m Glad There Is You” — are splendid, as is Mabern’s “Phineas Trane” (for Phineas Newborn and John Coltrane), which opens with some expressive locomotive–like sound effects and Mabern’s cry of “all aboard,” but Alexander’s three compositions, which lead off the album, are no better than average, while John Williams’ theme from the film The Towering Inferno and “Night Song,” from the Broadway play Golden Boy, are likewise short on staying power. For the most part, however, Alexander and his companions transcend such shortcomings, shaping more than an hour of searing straight–ahead Jazz that bristles with energy and passion. Alexander’s stature continues to grow, and one need only listen to The First Milestone (which, we hope, implies the first of many) to understand why.
Contact:Milestone Records, 10th and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710. www.fantasyjazz.com
Track Listing: Stand Pat; #34 Was Sweetness; The First Milestone; The Towering Inferno; Night Song; Last Night When We Were Young; The Phineas Trane; I
Personnel: Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; Harold Mabern, piano; Pat Martino (1, 3, 4, 7), guitar; Peter Washington, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums.