Riffing on the standards

Sax player Eric Alexander makes ballads take flight.

saxophone 88 (photo credit: )
saxophone 88
(photo credit: )
Ask most purveyors of jazz (or for that matter almost any contemporary musician), and they will tell you that you can't go far wrong with a ballad. American jazz saxophonist Eric Alexander certainly doesn't have a problem with that, and the lyrical genre will form the basis of his upcoming pairing with longtime cohort pianist David Hazeltine in the next installment of this season's Hot Jazz series. The 39-year-old has put it out with some of the best the jazz community has over the past couple of decades, such as 70-year-old bassist Ron Carter and recently deceased baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne. While Alexander follows a mostly mainstream bebop ethic, he says he's always looking to explore new ground. "Yes we're going to be playing ballads in Israel, but it's not going to be just short and sweet. The great thing about a ballad is that you can expand the tempo and the lyric. Ballads start from a low-intensity spot, and you can grow everywhere with it. You can build and make room for yourself." One need look no further than late iconic jazz saxophonist John Coltrane for a prime example of just how far you can stretch the artistic envelope while staying faithful to the original score. Coltrane's landmark 1961 version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein number "My Favorite Things" - of Sound of Music fame - appealed equally to jazz aficionados and fans of tuneful mainstream music, and was a smash hit at the time. Unsurprisingly, Coltrane is one of Alexander's heroes. "Coltrane is in my playing every time I play," he says. "I was fortunate enough to play with [former Coltrane band member pianist] McCoy Tyner not so long ago, and I could hear Trane's influence." As a mid-generation jazz artist, Alexander has the benefit of being able to feed off the work of the founding fathers of the faster more cerebral modern jazz, and of their predecessors from the more danceable Swing music and earlier eras. He also has a wide oeuvre of more contemporary material to mold and articulate. So it is interesting to get Alexander's take on jazz in the early 21st-century. "Most jazz musicians share the same musical sensibilities. There are certain aspects of the music we think are extremely important. For a start, we need to swing, and it's perfectly acceptable to use basic rhythms. And there must be some element of the blues - that's a huge part of it." However, while the roots of the genre must inform the jazz artist's output, there are plenty of other sources on which to draw. "Lots of things can be material for jazz," Alexander continues. "You can take from a variety of sources, whether it be original material, new material or a totally new concept. People who think there's music that cannot be used by jazz artists are mistaken. You can take '50s and '60s stuff and hip it up, and you can take more contemporary music. You can keep your ears open, not just stick to records from the '40s." Above all, Alexander feels jazz should be a means of communication, and that there's no point in playing something the public can't get. "Jazz is social music ; the audience has to be able to relate to what you do. Does it have to challenge the audience in order to be considered successful? Definitely not. Yes, jazz has to challenge the artist, and to an extent the audience - that's one of the hallmarks of jazz: the uncertainty, and the tension and release. But you don't have to use complex chord progressions." Alexander, Hazeltine, Israeli bass player Gilad Abro and drummer Shay Zelman will appear at the Camelot Club in Herzliya on Tuesday at 10 p.m., Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem on Wednesday at 9 p.m., Tel Aviv Museum on Thursday and Friday (December 21) at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. respectively, and at Abba Hushi House in Haifa on December 22 at 9 p.m. Details at www.hotjazz.co.il