Welcome to April, otherwise known as Jazz Appreciation month! JAM is a creation of the folks at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. Be sure to visit the JAM web site and sign up for your free copy of the 2015 JAM poster featuring Billy Strayhorn!
While you’re there, you’ll want to check out all the other JAM resources the NMAH offers, including their list of “112 Ways To Celebrate Jazz” for those of us who live outside the Washington, DC area.
Having said that, I can’t think of a better way for this blogger to kick off JAM than discussing one of America’s premier jazz artists, Eric Alexander. Alexander has appeared here previously, on August 4, 2012 in JFASN #45 when I wrote about his 2008 album on the HighNote label, “Alexander The Great.”
Alexander began playing piano at age six, the clarinet at age nine, and alto sax at age twelve. While at Indiana University, he developed an interest in tenor sax. Beyond that I will refer you to the previous review above for more detailed biographical information about Alexander.
The album I want to tell you about this week was recorded in 2008 and also released on the HighNote label: “It’s All In The Cards.” The personnel lineup for this one are:
Eric Alexander, tenor sax
Harold Mabern, piano
Nat Reeves, bass
Joe Farnsworth, drums
It’s worth noting that this is the same lineup he uses today, with the addition of another bassist, John Webber.
“It’s All In The Game” gives us eight delightful songs, three of which are his own compositions. In the liner notes, Alexander states: “I can’t fake myself out. If I felt a tune was a throwaway, it would be very hard for me to pretend to do my best…”
Needless to say, there is no pretending here! The album opens with “Where Or When” which Rodgers and Hart wrote for the 1937 musical, “Babes In Arms.” Instead of playing it as a plaintive melody, Alexander turns it into a lively song that hits the ground running from the first note. Rather than follow an arrangement that allows room for each member of the band to take his turn in the limelight, what we hear this time is simply the music, played from start to finish, magnificently. No one solos, but each plays his part to perfection.
Here the boys are performing “Where Or When”:
“Typhoon 11” is the first of the three songs we hear that was penned by Alexander. This one opens as Mabern’s show, and to say the piano master does a great job would be the proverbial understatement. When Alexander finally joins him about three minutes in, the two compliment each other about as well as you could expect from two guys who have been playing with each other as long as these two have.
The title track, “It’s All In The Game,” is the odd boy out here, being a slow, beautiful ballad among a bevy of faster-paced tunes. It is not only a wonderful change of pace, it is one of the few songs ever written by a man who would go on to become Vice President of the United States. True enough! It was written by Charles Dawes, who became Calvin Coolidge’s VP, serving from1925 to 1929.
I suppose that also means he was one of those who slept while the nation’s greedy financial giants allowed the country to slip into the Great Depression (much as their equally greedy descendants allowed us to slip into Dubya’s “Great Recession” eighty years later, a debacle from which the US economy still has not fully recovered).
“Ruby My Dear” is, of course, from the pen of Thelonious Monk. I have to admit to a love/hate relationship with Monk, but this tune comes down solidly on the “love” side of the board. The rhythm section propels the song along well, and Alexander does his usual extraordinary job.
“Little Lucas” is the last of Alexander’s own songs here. This is an unforgettable song that Alexander named after his son, Lucas, who was only a year old when Alexander wrote it. I have to admit, when I close my eyes while listening to this, the image of a one year old boy does not come automatically to my mind’s eye. Despite that, “Little Lucas” is a song that picks them up and puts them down and moves right along. I think you’ll like it.
The album closes with another fast paced winner, the Jules Styne classic “Bye Bye Baby,” which he wrote for Marilyn Monroe in Howard Hawks’ hilarious movie, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Alexander resorts to some overdubbing here, which I don’t always care for. Despite that, the song moves along nicely and makes a wonderful end to a spectacular album.
Here are Alexander and the boys:
I think it’s safe to say that I think you will find Eric Alexander’s “It’s All In The Game” to be a superb addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To learn more about Eric Alexander and his music, you can visit his web site.
To learn more about the legendary pianist Harold Mabern, JazzTimes Magazine has several articles about him on their web site. Be aware that if you go to the site linked to for Mabern on Alexander’s web site, the site you will be taken to is that of a trial lawyer apparently of the same name.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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