Interview by Nick Lea / Photograph of Eric Alexander by Jimmy Katz
Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander has been one of the leading players on the New York scene for the last three decades. A keeper of the flame he can be heard plying his own brand of hard bop with his very distinctive tone on the tenor and all of a sudden, he has a new album playing alto!
Listening to the album, A New Beginning: Alto Saxophone with Strings it is difficult to believe that you are not hearing a musician that has spent much time with the instrument, which in fact exactly what Alexander has done… twice.
From his musical beginnings as a child in taking piano lessons at six years old and then taking up the clarinet three years later. At twelve Eric switched to alto and studied classical music.
His love affair with jazz began around 1986 and he finally settled on tenor saxophone. Since then, he has dedicated countless hours to mastering his instrument and developing his sound.
Mostly favouring small groups, Alexander has recorded prolifically as leader since making his debut album Straight Up for Delmark in 1992, and since 2013 has recorded exclusively for High Note. Breaking away from the quartet, the saxophonist recorded Eric Alexander with Strings in 2019 to critical acclaim, and has now followed this up with another album with strings but this time with a very sound.
It was therefore a real pleasure to talk to Eric about his decision to make a switch to alto saxophone, the process of adjustment and the making of New Beginning.
The first question must be why the decision to pick up the alto saxophone again after so many years exclusively playing tenor?
Alto was the first of the saxophone family that I studied as a young man after switching from clarinet. During the pandemic, with a lot of time on my hands, I decided to see whether I could play that instrument again on a level that didn’t embarrass me.
To my surprise and great joy, after a few weeks, I could see that with a little more work, I would be able to record an album that not only would not embarrass me but also would be a new direction and notch in my belt, so to speak. It was and has been a labor of love to return to that instrument.
Sometimes as a listener we fail to realize how big a deal it is to switch instruments from tenor to alto saxophone. What was the biggest challenge in playing alto after having spent so much time for so long developing your sound and embouchure on tenor?
To my great surprise the challenge was not that substantial. The saxophone, by nature, is a wild and untempered instrument. The idiosyncrasies of every horn combined with the physicality of every player is, quite frankly the greatest appeal that listeners find in a saxophone sound – it can be widely out of tune, it can be subtle, it can be grating: but, after all, the listeners appreciate “warts and all”, and not perfection. When I realized this, I was able to discard my anxieties about imperfection and celebrate the “warts and all” emanating from my body.
Your latest album A New Beginning featuring your alto playing with strings immediately sets the bar very high. Why did you decide to take the approach of recording with strings as opposed to debuting your alto playing in the more familiar quartet setting?
I’ll make this very simple; Charlie Parker’s favorite project in his illustrious career was to record with strings. When I was afforded this opportunity, I leapt at it with great relish.
Your alto playing sounds full-bodied yet with the flexibility and nuance that characterizes your tenor sound. How did you look to working on your sound on the smaller horn, and do you feel that your beginnings on saxophone and classical studies on alto returned subconsciously when you picked up the horn again after a long time away?
That’s an interesting question. I never stopped hearing the alto saxophone as a pitch reference when I listen to music. I could get the same nuances out of a comb and wax paper or a kazoo because that’s my being. As I’ve grown older and tried to eliminate affectation in my playing and concentrate solely on music that is heaven-sent, my idiosyncrasies are no longer opaque, they are transparent.
You have recorded with strings on a previous album, Eric Alexander with Strings released in 2019. How do you feel your approach changed to working with strings with the change of instrument?
My approach remained exactly the same. In both instances, I intended to honor the melody (first and foremost,) and prioritize the melody and lyrics and the composer’s intent.
The two albums with strings have the benefit of working with the same quartet, but the music feels very different. This is obviously partly due to you playing alto, but Bill Dobbins’s arrangements are a nice contrast to the work of Dave Rivello from the earlier album. How did you get together with Bill?
Bill Dobbins mentored Dave Rivello. His arranging on this recording is almost extravagant in a Hollywood-score style, whereas Rivello’s writing is sparser and more patient. Both arrangers came to these projects because of producer Diane Armesto.
There is an interesting choice of repertoire from the Great American Songbook. How did you go about selecting the compositions for the recording?
I often said that if a person, in the absence of being well-read or educated, simply listened to the grad works in the American Popular Songbook, could develop a feeling for language and beautiful music that is a lofty goal in expressive art forms. That having been said, I’m always looking for unearthed gems – in terms of what has been recorded by horn players – to use as my musical inspiration.
Interestingly, Bill also arranged one of your original compositions to arrange for strings in ‘Anita’. Can you tell us about the piece?
Originally that piece was written for a theme for a movie entitled “Ghost Ride.” I renamed it and refashioned it for a person that was a good friend.
The strings for the album were recorded at a separate session that took place after you had recorded the quartet tracks. How did you alter your approach to your own playing to accommodate the strings at a later date?
I didn’t change anything. If I were in a studio playing arrangements that had been crafted in advance, I would take it upon myself and I would reform in a way that was sympathetic to the arranger’s intentions. In this case, the arranger arranged music that was sympathetic to my melodic and improvisational intentions.
If we flip the coin upside down, we shall see that there is no difference whatsoever in terms of artistic integrity and love for the musical connectivity among the musicians. It’s a relationship.
The album is booked-ended by two versions of your tune “Blues For Diane” in which the quartet really get to dig in. Can you tell us about the decision to record this piece without strings and also include the alternate take?
We wanted to warm up with a blues for a sound check. We named it for producer Diane Armesto, and she came up with the idea to bookend the recording with these two versions of the same tune.
Now you have picked up the alto and spent some time with the instrument are you planning to make it a regular part of your playing going forward?
Absolutely, it’s a joy to play the alto.
And finally, one for the saxophone players out there, can you tell us about your setup for your tenor and alto?
I always have played Otto Link metal mouthpieces on tenor. The alto is still an experiment, albeit one that is going in a good direction for me. As such, I mess around with mouthpieces and equipment all the time. My primary horn on the tenor is my Ishimori Eric Alexander model. I’ve been playing a Yanigisawa alto most of the time.
For more information visit Eric’s website at Eric Alexander Jazz