A New Beginning: Eric Alexander Alto Saxophone with Strings. HighNote Records, 2023.
By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The pandemic created unsolicited but fruitful periods of solitude for millions, and more creative types used it for an assortment of purposes.
One such artist was tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, the celebrated NYC operative who has recorded many well-received albums with his quartet and the septet One For All. (I am a bit embarrassed to admit I left him off of my list of heralded tenor players in a recent review.) Alexander’s talent is unquestioned.
But during the pandemic, he decided to try his hand at alto, after years and years of mastering the tenor. Now a new recording reveals the results. In a word, Wow!
His new album, A New Beginning: Eric Alexander Alto Saxophone with Strings, is a daring move, entering an exclusive club of sax players and labels who have felt comfortable enough to record in such a context, as well as recording a first album with a new type of instrument. What I hear is a tenor virtuoso who now sounds like he was raised on the alto—a new beginning, indeed.
One quickly compares this offering with the short list of noted altoists who have successfully recorded with strings. My list includes:
Charlie Parker with Strings
Cannonball Adderley and Strings
Phil Woods—The Thrill is Gone
Jim Snidero—Strings (an underappreciated gem)
Does Alexander fit in? Yes. In fact, I am thinking we may never hear this guy play tenor again.
A genius move is to start and end A New Beginning with a straight-up post-bop finger popper, “Blues for Diane,” which serves as the “just in case you are wondering if I can play this thing” evidence. And he can, boy can he. Alexander sounds revived and in total control, moving up and down the instrument as smoothly as Bird or Stitt did, really. His dexterity, fluidity, and tone is astonishing, to these ears, for someone who claims to have begun only within the last three years.
In between, along with his long-time, sturdy support group of David Hazeltine on piano, John Webber on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums, Alexander then performs on six classic ballads and one original, with lovely orchestral arrangements conducted by Bill Dobbins.
Occasionally, the arrangement will skip within a song into something that swings a bit, such as in “Embraceable You,” which begins with the typical lush string flourish, the languid sax expression, and tinkling of piano, but two-and-a-half minutes in Farnsworth signals a change of pace, and one can imagine the slow dancers picking up speed in the ballroom. Through all this, Alexander is as loquacious as can be, with a mastery that belies the backstory. Hazeltine accompanies him with equal aplomb.
On “All My Tomorrows,” the newfound altoist does sound like he misses his tenor sax, but a couple of note runs suggest otherwise. And if you didn’t quite believe the ‘evidence’ of the first piece, on the Latin-tinged version of “She Was Good to Me” Alexander demonstrates how some tenor influences (perhaps Coltrane) can inspire an alto attack.
And I do hear vestiges of Desmond on the penultimate cut, “Too Late Now,” though Alexander is not that fluid, pausing often to insert running phrases that typified Woods’ approach.
I wish I could tell you that the tenor guy who changed to alto was “a work in progress,” but that would be just to honor the alto hierarchy as a matter of respect. Turns out Eric Alexander belongs. Who knew? Well, now we do, and as the alternative version of “Blues for Diane” plays out, I am astonished, and refreshed as well, by this debut. I guess we’ll just have to expect more from this “new” alto dude.
Eric Alexander, A New Beginning: Alto Saxophone with Strings. HighNote Records, 2023.
Eric Alexander, alto saxophone
David Hazeltine, piano
John Webber, bass
Joe Farnsworth, drums
String orchestra arranged and conducted by Bill Dobbins.
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org