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Eric Alexander: Three Times Around the Block

Jim Santella By

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Eric Alexander Quartet
Prime Time
HighNote Records

Eric Alexander Quartet
My Favorite Things
Venus Records

Eric Alexander Quartet
Gentle Ballads III
Venus Records

Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, 40, made his debut at the Monk Competition in 1991. Since then, he's won the hearts and minds of jazz fans with straight-ahead performances employing small, acoustic ensembles in standards-appreciative settings. With him on these recent albums are pianist David Hazeltine, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth; Mike LeDonne substitutes for Hazeltine on Gentle Ballads III.

Recorded live at the Diana Wortham Theater in Asheville, NC, Prime Time features CD and DVD performances with several differences in song listings. Most are original tunes that Alexander and his quartet interpret with enthusiasm. There must have been plenty of receptive signals around the room that day in April 2007, because the quartet performs with unbridled spirit. Hazeltine's "Blues Like" puts motion into your feet and hands with its deep-rooted rhythmic heritage and "We All Love Eddie Harris" rocks with an easy contemporary beat. Slower pieces such as Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" show off Alexander's fat ballad tone while his "Nemesis" drives like rapid-fire hailstones on a sheet metal roof.

On My Favorite Things—a collection of eight standards—Alexander charges fast and straight-ahead for one familiar refrain, bounces casually through the blues for another and runs rampant over hotter items. The title track allows the saxophonist room for fresh exploration, Trane's "Lazy Bird," taken at an ultra-quick tempo, finds the quartet romping loose, warm and legato. Compositions by Sonny Rollins and Stanley Turrentine appear as well: "Airegin" is replete with mighty bebop drive while "Sugar" is packed with slow blues feeling. "Triste"'s bossa nova is reminiscent of Stan Getz but Alexander has a much stronger approach. Alexander could very well have titled this album My Favorite Tenor Saxophonists—Lester Young, Joe Henderson and Paul Gonsalves show up in bebop-fragranced interpretations.

The easygoing mood and pastel color of Gentle Ballads III produces a different picture than Alexander's aforementioned albums. Mike LeDonne provides the elaborate design for this session through curlicue piano fills and eloquent asides that twirl around the leader's straightforward melodies. Unlike the emotional emphasis that vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday have put into these chestnuts, Alexander's demeanor stands down, leaning on each memorable theme and going with its original value. Only "Summertime" and "They Say It's Wonderful" receive a rhythmic makeover; the notes flow fast and articulate, giving the session a fresh burst. Elsewhere, the program allows LeDonne to carry the action; with "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," for example, the quartet would easily put its audience to sleep were it not for the pianist's cascading runs and spiraling pebbles amplifying Alexander's feathery puffs of melodic charm. This is a team effort where pianist and saxophonist combine widely different approaches into one fine blend.

Tracks and Personnel

Prime Time

Tracks: CD Track Listing: Blues Like; One for Steve; Little Lucas; Pearls; Some Other Time; We All Love Eddie Harris; Nemesis. DVD Track Listing: Pearls; One for Steve; Nemesis; Little Lucas; Blues Like; We All Love Eddie Harris; Yasashiku (Gently); First Impression; Prime Time.

Personnel: Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone; David Hazeltine: piano; John Webber: double bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums.

My Favorite Things

Tracks: Sugar; Triste; Stella by Starlight; My Favorite Things; Airegin; As Time Goes By; Lover Man; Lazy Bird.

Personnel: Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone; David Hazeltine: piano; John Webber: double bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums.

Gentle Ballads III

Tracks: Little Girl Blue; Don't Explain; All the Way; Summertime; You'll Be Mine Tonight; They Say It's Wonderful; Killing Me Softly With His Song; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.

Personnel: Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone; Mike LeDonne: piano; John Webber: double bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums.

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