Boasting a warm, finely burnished tone and a robust melodic and harmonic imagination, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander brings a seasoned veteran's proficiency and poise to his latest recording, Nightlife in Tokyo. As he has on his four previous Milestone albums as a leader, the 34-year-old colossus-on-the-rise approached this new project with an assured and mature musical vision, gracefully sidestepping the novelties and trends that have come to the fore in so much contemporary jazz marketing.
"I'm not consciously trying to do things differently from record date to record date," explains the 34-year-old Galesburg, Illinois native. "I'm just really adhering to formula of assembling good musicians that I'm comfortable playing with, getting quality material—a combination of originals and standards and perhaps some new arrangements on standard tunes—and trying to make the kind of a recording that a jazz fan or musician can put on and enjoy listening to from start to finish."
Nightlife in Tokyo, which follows tight on the heels of 2002's Summit Meeting (with trumpeter Nicholas Payton), succeeds on all counts. Featuring his longtime recording and performing partners, pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Joe Farnsworth, Nightlife in Tokyo is anchored by the resolute and creative bass playing of the legendary Ron Carter. "If I could play with Ron Carter on every gig I do for the rest of my life, I wouldn't be disappointed," Alexander says. "He is arguably the greatest bass player alive right now, and he's certainly one of my all-time favorites. He has an uncanny ability to direct the music in a subtle way and make it go to places you didn't think it could go. He'll make subtle changes in the feel, the bass line, or the rhythm. In 'Nemesis,' for instance, right at the beginning of my first solo chorus, the bottom almost drops out as he stops in his tracks and then slides up and down the strings and creates this little weird moment in time where everything is suspended. It really influenced the way I played my solo—I found myself playing something entirely different than what I was preparing myself to play. It was a magical moment."
Nightlife in Tokyo abounds with such exquisite episodes throughout the eight-song program that includes five Alexander originals, the standards "I Can Dream, Can't I?" and "I'll Be Around," and Mabern's compelling minor blues title track. Alexander has maintained a close musical partnership with the veteran pianist for 16 years. Indeed, Mabern has appeared on all of Alexander's albums since 1999's The First Milestone. "He's such a great listener when he's comping," Alexander enthuses, "that he's really able to highlight and emphasize the good things you're doing. He's also very challenging. Sometimes he'll throw something your way, harmonically speaking, that might completely throw off your chain of thought. Over the years he's worked out ways of altering chord progressions in various ways. He's able to insert these devices in various places in any given tune. It really took me years of playing with him to start to understand his thought process and get to a point of reacting naturally to what he was doing. It's very rewarding because once you begin to approach that level of musical communication, it opens up a whole new world of playing."
Alexander has been exploring new musical worlds from the outset. He started out on piano as a six-year-old, took up clarinet at nine, switched to alto sax when he was 12, and converted to tenor when jazz became his obsession during his one year at the University of Indiana, Bloomington (1986-87). At William Paterson College in New Jersey he advanced his studies under the tutelage of Mabern, Joe Lovano, Rufus Reid, and others. "The people I listened to in college are still the cats that are influencing me today," says Alexander. "Monk, Dizzy, Sonny Stitt, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson—the legacy left by Bird and all the bebop pioneers, that language and that feel, that's the bread and butter of everything I do. George Coleman remains a big influence because of his very hip harmonic approach, and I'm still listening all the time to Coltrane because I feel that even in the wildest moments of his mid- to late-Sixties solos I can find these little kernels of melodic information and find ways to employ them in my own playing."
During the 1990s, after placing second behind Joshua Redman in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, Alexander threw himself into the whirlwind life of a professional jazz musician. He played with organ trios on the South Side of Chicago, made his recording debut in 1991 with Charles Earland, and cut his first album as leader in 1992 (Straight Up for Delmark). More recordings for Delmark, Criss Cross, and Alfa followed, leading to 1997's Man with a Horn; the 1998 collaborative quartet session with George Mraz, John Hicks, and Idris Muhammad, Solid!; and, that same year, the first recording by One For All, Alexander's ongoing band with Jim Rotondi, Steve Davis, Joe Farnsworth, Peter Washington, and Dave Hazeltine.
By now, Alexander has lost count of how many albums feature his playing; he guesses 60 or 70. While he has garnered critical acclaim from every corner, what has mattered most has been to establish his own voice within the illustrious bop-based jazz tradition. "There was a point several years ago where I stopped thinking, 'What would Stitt or Trane do on this tune?,'" he says. "I put the horn in my mouth and just played the way that I play, trying to get out the ideas that I had in my head. Although I'm a perfectionist by nature, lately I've been able to be a little more accepting about the way I sound when I play the horn.
"If I'm not mistaken," Alexander concludes, "Joe Farnsworth once told me that Art Blakey used to say, 'I don't care whose instrument I play, I'll make it sound like me.' That's the battle we're trying to win—feeling confident and comfortable in all situations. If you get to the point where you can express yourself and get your sound, your feeling, and your vibe—on any instrument—then you've really gotten somewhere."