Eric Alexander shares many shades of bebop

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Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander fully embraced the rich and vibrant sound of bebop in his formative years as a jazz player- and continues to help it evolve a quarter-century later.

That was the takeaway after his Wednesday, April 5 appearance with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra at Artis-Naples' Daniels Pavilion. Despite the big name, the band is actually a sextet. They explored a wide range of standard material, finding ways to add their own energetic stamp on it. In each case, the music was stretched for expansive and interesting solos by all of the participants.

On this night, the NPJO included three regulars—tenor saxophonist Lew Del Gatto (the 25-year Saturday Night Live Band alum), powerhouse trumpeter Dan Miller and pianist Jerry Stawski—plus two rhythm section subs: Miami-based bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer Goetz Kujack. Regulars Kevin Mauldin (bass) and Mike Harvey (drums) had other commitments.

Alexander had never played with any of them, but they worked together very well.

With the extended solos and features, the 80-minute performance included just seven tunes. They opened with Eddie “Cleanhead" Vinson's jazz classic “Four," often mis-attributed to Miles Davis, then dug into Ahmad Jamal's “Night Mist Blues." The latter tune was an evening highlight. While not a traditional blues by any stretch, it has a blues feel. It opened like a genteel ballad, thanks to Stawski's exquisite keyboard work, but Alexander soon added heavy doses of robust, harmonically challenging tenor fire. That musical energy set up a blistering solo from Miller.

The full band explored the standard “Alone Together," freshening it with a clever three-note horn vamp under the opening and closing melodic sections. Alexander, runner-up in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, performed two tunes with just the rhythm section: Jimmy Van Heusen's Sinatra hit “All the Way" and “A Day in the Life of a Fool," the Luis Bonfa composition also known as Manha de Carnival" and “Theme from Black Orpheus." Both spotlights drew on his seemingly endless supply of musical ideas.

Alexander and Del Gatto teamed up for an Gene Ammons-Sonny Stitt-style tenor sax battle on Stitt's “Blues Up and Down." They traded solos and brief phrases, picking up on each other's musical thoughts and implicitly egging each other on. “I graciously concede the tenor battle," Del Gatto quipped later. “I'm old; his fingers move faster than mine."

The full band closed out the evening with a straight-ahead take on John Coltrane's “Moment's Notice."

Alexander's appearance completed the special guest portion of NPJO's 2016-2017 season. The band will perform once more on April 26 with the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the best-known composer in Brazil's bossa nova movement.

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This story appears courtesy of Ken Franckling's Jazz Notes.
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