To paraphrase Cole Porter: "Bird did it, Chet did it... even many vocalists I bet did it..." And now tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander
did itrecorded an album with strings, that is. This represents quite a departure for Alexander who is widely known as one of the more emotive and resourceful improvisers on the scene; but so it was too for Charlie Parker
, the foremost architect and unquestioned sovereign of the bop movement who was the first post-Swing Era superstar to record with a string orchestra, way back in 1950, laying bare the path that trumpeter Chet Baker
and others would follow.
Is Alexander's conversion the start of an enduring love affair or more like a passing fancy? That jury remains out, but a clue may be found in the CD's modest thirty-seven-minute running time. That doesn't speak well for any sort of long-term commitment. Alexander says recording an album with strings has always been a dream of his; now that it has been done, he may presumably revert to his more customary fire-breathing persona. Meanwhile, what he has imparted are five well-crafted ballads (nothing Alexander embarks upon is less than well-crafted): his own melodious theme, "Gently," Henry Mancini
's "Dreamsville," Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time," Horace Silver
's "Lonely Woman" Lew Brown / Ray Henderson's standard, "The Thrill Is Gone," and one slightly more animated number, Mancini's "Slow, Hot Wind."
To carry out his purpose, Alexander has enlisted the support of his working group (David Hazeltine
, piano; John Webber
, bass; Joe Farnsworth
, drums) and a thirteen-member string section plus flute and French horn arranged and conducted by Dave Rivello
. Even at these tempos, Alexander's mastery is self-evident, his solos never less than perceptive and engaging. Whether that is enough to please fans of the more hard-blowing Alexander remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: he never gives any endeavor, no matter how far removed from his natural flight path, less than the best he has to offer. He begins "Gently," then eases the tempo even more on the haunting "Dreamsville" and wistful "Some Other Time" before tenderly caressing the alluring "Lonely Woman." The sultry "Slow, Hot Wind" responds warmly to Alexander's persuasion, while "The Thrill Is Gone" affirms one last time his consummate mastery of the ballad style.
As was true on his recent album Leap of Faith
(Giant Step Arts, 2019), Alexander seems determined to forswear his comfort zone and traverse new avenues of inspiration. On With Strings
he has fulfilled a dream, which means the album will remain close to Alexander's heart no matter how warm or chilly the collective response to it may be.
Gently; Dreamsville; Some Other Time; Lonely Woman; Slow, Hot Wind; The Thrill Is Gone.