Polite Blaze: Eric Alexander’s “Chicago Fire” (HighNote, 2014)

Album review by Neil Hobkirk

Yes, folks: he still walks the earth and works among us. Rudy Van Gelder, one of the most celebrated engineers in the history of sound recordings, midwives the birth of notable jazz albums to this day, most recently Eric Alexander’s Chicago Fire.

This session, recorded on November 26th, 2013, is one of many that Van Gelder has finessed for Joe Fields’ labels HighNote and Savant, a dual stronghold for straightahead jazz founded in 1996. You’ll also find RVG’s stamp all over recordings for Fields’ previous venture, Muse Records (1972-1996). To the extent that the general public knows jazz recordings, however, Rudy’s name is most closely identified with countless releases for Blue Note, Prestige, CTI and Impulse Records.

Consider these names: Bud Powell; Thelonious Monk; Miles Davis; Art Blakey; Sonny Rollins; Jackie McLean; Jimmy Smith; Gene Ammons; Booker Ervin; Kenny Burrell; Hank Mobley; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis; Lou Donaldson; Sonny Clark; Coleman Hawkins; Freddie Hubbard; Grant Green; Sonny Stitt; Shirley Scott; Andrew Hill; Joe Henderson; Wayne Shorter; John Coltrane. They all journeyed to New Jersey to record at Van Gelder’s studio, located for its first dozen years in his parents’ Hackensack living room.

Since 1959, Van Gelder Recording Studio has resided in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where Chicago Fire was engineered, mixed and mastered by the man himself. That’s right: Rudy’s still at it after nearly seven decades behind the studio console, and he insists on handling digital post-production duties himself. All of tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander’s studio recordings for HighNote have received the Van Gelder treatment, basking in the master’s trademark warm ambience. Van Gelder is famously secretive about his methods for conveying warmth and spaciousness; in one of his few interviews, he explains simply that he aims to build a sense of space around the instruments in the sound picture, and strove to do so even on his monophonic early recordings.

Alexander’s records are too numerous to show the Van Gelder touch exclusively. As bandleader, this 45-year-old hard bop beacon has signaled his commitment across thirty albums on a number of labels. As member of the collective sextet One for All, he’s laid down a further fifteen sessions. And as sideman, he’s starting to rival Rudy as a challenge to discographical finitude. Quips one blogger, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, “Nothing is certain in this world with the exception of death, taxes, and Eric Alexander” (Brent Black, Bop-N-Jazz, 31 March 2014).

With Chicago Fire, Alexander approaches the concept album as closely as his temperament probably allows. His dates as leader have collected jazz standards, near-standards, obscurities and Alexander originals, as well as originals by longtime pianist Harold Mabern, all in proportions familiar from one disc to the next. The certainty—the predictability—of the tenorist’s intrepid progress across hard bop terrain suffers no setback on this new release, but it is tempered by his programmatic pledge to celebrate Chicago, as of 1990 the scene of his two-year apprenticeship following formal music education. Alexander chooses material that reflects influences he encountered and absorbed there, including saxophonists Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin (“The Little Giant”), Eddie Harris, Von Freeman, organist Charles “The Mighty Burner” Earland (an early employer) and mentor Mabern.

The most action-packed track is Mabern’s “The Bee Hive,” a piece the pianist originally performed on Lee Morgan’s 1970 double LP Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note Records). On Chicago Fire, the tune opens in martial bugle-call fashion, with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt expounding the main theme in unison with Alexander, atop impatient assertions from drummer Joe Farnsworth. Except for bassist John Webber, all the players solo in turn, beginning with Alexander. Pelt’s turn on trumpet is particularly impressive: daredevilish yet precise, with his well-rounded tone captured warmly by Van Gelder. Following further peremptory outbreaks from his snare, Farnsworth’s eventual set piece proves “The Bee Hive” a virtual pretext for drum display, where he resourcefully addresses all parts of his kit.

The other two numbers featuring Pelt pour less fuel on the fire. The opener, Buddy Johnson’s “Save Your Love for Me,” pays tribute to Charles Earland. The closing track, Henry Nemo’s “Don’t Take Your Love from Me,” is reportedly a tune familiar to gigging Chicago musicians. The quintet treats both tunes suavely, maintaining an urbane amble in the first, and a calm bossa nova rhythm in the second. Throughout Nemo’s number Alexander hugs the melody closely, and his solo subjects it to some marvellous variations while preserving its integrity.

That’s the thing about Eric Alexander: he’s always polite. Far from taking liberties with composers’ material and overindulging in extended techniques, he and his sidemen cleave closely to recognizable rhythms, melodies and harmonies. All his albums display stunning clarity of execution, the kind of preciseness that detractors call cold-blooded. There’s still always plenty of available heat, though the blaze on Chicago Fire is kept under firmer control than usual, partly owing to recording quality. It’s not just that Alexander remains his own man even while paying homage to others, never actually imitating the rude rasp of Von Freeman’s tenor (on “Blueski for Vonski”) or the unhinged funk of Eddie Harris’ (on “Eddie Harris”); though I do pine for some expressive raggedness from his horn on these Chicago tributes, what keeps events here at a low heat has seemingly more to do with Van Gelder’s technique than with Alexander’s.

On this record, the iconic engineer has perhaps introduced too much spaciousness, at least where the leader’s instrument is concerned. When the tenor takes its first solo, on “Save Your Love for Me,” it sounds curiously recessed, an effect that diminishes Alexander’s usual fireworks for much of the album—particularly on the three quintet tracks, where the tenor seems less to cohabit space with the trumpet than to dwell in a separate chamber. With so powerful a player, this distancing effect could hardly result from deference to the other horn. While Alexander’s characteristic sound is slender, lacking the soulful broadness of other tenors who have decidedly benefited from the Van Gelder treatment—Ike Quebec, Stanley Turrentine, Houston Person—it stands in higher relief on his other HighNote recordings. In the 2005 recording session for It’s All in the Game, for example, Van Gelder captured the tenor’s sound in gorgeously robust detail.

In grabbing fair shares of the stereo image on Chicago Fire, the other members of Alexander’s working quartet have generally better luck. Secret weapon Harold Mabern, who tends to share the leader’s spotlight when not stealing it, claims an earthy piano tone, suiting his joyfully aggressive style. Vigorously anchoring the rhythm section, John Webber fully earns the delightfully springy and assertive sound that RVG’s studio lends his double bass—my personal favourite sound on the album. On the other hand, Joe Farnsworth, whose drums register with suitable depth and clarity, is cursed with a distractingly bright ride cymbal, an insistent clatter not heard on the other HighNotes.

Peculiarities of sound mix aside, Chicago Fire is an enjoyable listen, replete with bouncy, life-affirming tunes filtered through Eric Alexander’s urbane sensibility. I wouldn’t call it the best place to start an appreciation of his artistry, but it does rise to impressive heights, notably on “Just One of Those Things” by Cole Porter. Intended as a tribute to Johnny Griffin’s breakneck agility, Alexander’s reading boasts the same gale-force derring-do that the Little Giant brought to bear on such repertoire. (To me it recalls his work on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers’ collection of Lerner and Loewe show tunes, recorded in 1957.) On this track the fire threatens thrillingly to burn out of control.

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Editor’s note: This recording is recommended, and Wall of Sound encourages its readers to buy from a local, independent record store whenever possible. If you have no local option, please consider supporting our website by ordering from Amazon using our Affiliate link: Eric Alexander – Chicago Fire. Thank you!

 


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