Eric Alexander’s concert at William Paterson University was something of a homecoming for the thirty-two year old tenor saxophonist. In 1990, Alexander and his drummer of choice, Joe Farnsworth, graduated from the University’s highly regarded jazz studies program. To continue the William Paterson connection, Harold Mabern, one of Alexander’s teachers at the University, was the band’s pianist, playing beside trumpeter Jim Rotondi and bassist Dwayne Burno.
The band opened with the first of three consecutive numbers penned by Mabern, “All Aboard the Phineas Trane,” dedicated to the late Phineas Newborn Jr. Galvanized by a crackling break by Farnsworth, the band set a hard, unremittlingly swinging standard that would be maintained throughout the entire concert. Rotondi’s solo exhibited flawless control of the horn in the higher register, and some mercurial sparring with Farnsworth. Next up was Mabern’s tribute to Lee Morgan, “Edward Lee.” The medium tempo, hard bop tune inspired some of Alexander’s best playing of the set. With the pianist playing lithe riffs in the background, he worked his way through numerous, self-created mazes of sound that incorporated blues tonality. Mabern set the tone for “I Remember Britt,” with a flowing introduction which evolved into a bright bossa nova-like tune. The melody of the ballad “Last Night When We Were Young,” was played as an out of tempo duet between Alexander and the pianist, with Farnsworth switching from brushes to sticks and back during the solos.
At this point in the program, David Demsey, coordinator of jazz studies, and James Williams, director of jazz studies at William Paterson, came out on stage to make two surprise presentations to Mabern. The first was a plaque from the University commemorating his 20 years as a piano teacher and a director of student jazz ensembles. The second was The Phineas Newborn Award for artistry and excellence as a player and teacher by Finas Sound, Williams’ production company. Williams read several tributes to Mabern from jazz luminaries such as Mulgrew Miller and Charles Lloyd. Demsey then proceeded to introduce a special guest, Mabern’s longtime associate, tenor saxophonist George Coleman. Over ten years ago, Mabern encouraged Alexander to sit in with Coleman, who became one of the younger man’s primary influences. With Alexander and Rotonti (a member of Coleman’s quintet and octet) smiling in appreciation, Coleman played a marathon solo on “Dedicated To You,” ranging from bird cries to raw, emotional phrases.
The concert concluded with a long, wickedly fast version of “In The Still of the Night.” As the band played in stop-time, Alexander executed an impressive array of winding lines, followed by solos from Rotondi, Coleman, and an incredible turn by Farnsworth in which he traveled around the drum kit with the technique, structural integrity, and the command of a young Max Roach.