Eric Alexander is ‘Always Adventurous’

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Saxophonist Eric Alexander regards his playing as “well-spoken, with melody at the center.”

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

Eric Alexander doesn’t understand how people can get bored. “There are so many things to do, and there’s so little time to do them,” said the prolific 51-year-old tenor saxophonist, who admits that he’s lost track of how many leader albums he has recorded.

His discography includes at least 43, beginning with his debut, Straight Up, released by Delmark in 1993. Over the decades, he’s cut impromptu sessions for the Japanese labels Alfa Jazz and Venus, and he has enjoyed stints on Criss Cross Jazz, Milestone and his current home, HighNote.

“I remember all the sessions,” he said. “But for a lot of them in Japan, I didn’t have artistic control. Even so, I’m always adventurous when I play. I’m not necessarily hyper-aggressive and challenging from beginning to end because that’s not me. That’s not who I am. I like to play pretty and perfect. I see my playing as well-spoken, with melody at the center.”

Alexander, who was based in Chicago for years, now lives in the upper Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale amid historic mansions, elite private schools and the fortress-like structure for the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations. His apartment (compete with a garage underneath) is a comfortable home with a piano and electric keyboard in one spacious room that stretches out to a long dinner table, with a view of a wooded area adjacent to Van Cortland Park. It’s near the northernmost stop on the New York City subway system’s 1 train. On a good day, he explained, he can hop on the 1 and arrive at Smoke jazz club, one of his main gigging venues, in about 30 minutes.

His career has generated some entertaining anecdotes, including one about an early session as a sideman at legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. “I didn’t know who Rudy was except for the fact that he had a reputation for being nasty,” he said. “I adjusted the microphone for the saxophone, and he came running in and said, ‘You son of a bitch. Don’t you ever touch my equipment.’”

Shortly after that learning experience, Alexander drew the attention of the jazz world at the 1991 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Saxophone Competition. Among the five finalists, he had the penultimate performance slot; after his showcase, he thought he was the best: “I sat in the audience thinking I was going to win, and then I watched Joshua Redman come on as the last finalist. Right then I knew that I didn’t win, that I’d come in second place. I didn’t feel like he outplayed me, but he was smarter, more clever. He played a varied program, where I had played stone-cold bebop. I think the judges wanted to see something else.”

His gorgeous, lyrical new HighNote album, Eric Alexander With Strings, is a dream come true—even though the process of recording and releasing it has been a haul. It serves as a career landmark and perhaps a turning point. “I consider it as a gift that came into my life, even if the music was recorded seven or eight years ago,” he explained. “The strings part of the album came later. I didn’t even know if this was going to come to fruition, and now here it is.”

Singer Diane Armesto first met Alexander at Birdland in the early 2000s when he was playing a sideman gig with guitarist Pat Martino. She was so impressed by Alexander that she invited him to fill in for her original tenorist at a session that would yield her Ballads With Strings, Volume II. He contributed a solo to her rendition of “Blue And Green,” and she penned lyrics for one of his originals, “Gently And Sincere.”

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