Tenor sax player Eric Alexander generated a fair amount of hoopla when he came out of nowhere (i.e., Chicago before the current jazz revival) to place second in the 1991 Thelonious Monk competition. Since then he’s clearly outstripped the winner, the facile but generally underwhelming Joshua Redman, but I get the feeling that the jazz world now takes Alexander for granted. That’s a shame but also a backhanded compliment: from the beginning Alexander played with authority beyond his years, and now that he’s in his prime he sounds like a postbop veteran. But don’t equate his steady-state virtuosity and down-the-middle repertoire with fustiness. Alexander uses well-grounded swing to launch high-flying ideas; he couches his dominating lyricism in a thrillingly voluptuous tone; and he enlivens his solos by finding new harmonic implications in even the simplest chord structures. Since his first records Alexander has had a simpatico workmate in Harold Mabern, a pianist 32 years his senior whom he first met and studied with during his college years. Both came to Chicago as young men–Alexander from New Jersey in 1990, Mabern from Memphis in 1954–for the specific purpose of soaking up this city’s musical atmosphere before heading to New York. Alexander immersed himself in the organ jazz tradition exemplified by the late Charles Earland, whose band he joined; Mabern studied with Ahmad Jamal and, with fellow Memphians Frank Strozier and Willie Thomas, formed the MJT+3, a fondly recalled hard-bop band whose four recordings (all made in Chicago) continue to win converts. This weekend’s quartet features the redoubtable rhythm team of bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer George Fludas, who could probably make even me sound good. Friday, May 14, 9 PM, and Saturday, May 15, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael jackson, David Katzenstein.