An Interview with Eric Alexander
A Moment with
by Fred Jung
Eric Alexander might be better known for his second placing to Joshua Redman in the Thelonious Monk Competition, but that should soon change as soon as the public gets wind of his new Milestone debut, “Man With a Horn.” I sat down with Eric and we spoke about his new record and that infamous Monk Competition when we went one on one. It is one of today’s brightest talents talking unedited, from the hip, and in his own words.
JazzUSA: Where does it all begin?
EA: My first exposure to music of any kind, in terms of playing it, was through piano lessons, which my mother, sort of, forced me into when I was about five or six, like many mothers do. I continued with that through my teenage years, but I started playing clarinet also in the fourth grade. That just continued as a little sideshow hobby until I was about twelve years old. At that point, I was terrible on the clarinet and I had been demoted to bass clarinet in the junior high band and I was thinking about giving it up. Then I decided to see if I could get lessons on the bass clarinet and the woodwind teacher in my town said that that’s ridiculous but I’ll give you saxophone lessons instead, so that’s when that started. It turned out that most of my friends were playing saxophone anyway and so we developed a friendly rivalry and there was some inspiration to practice and improve. That’s how I really got started on the saxophone.
JazzUSA: Did you continue to advance your pursuit of learning the saxophone?
EA: I studied privately on the saxophone throughout high school and played in all of the important ensembles, the band and the jazz band. I wasn’t real serious about it until college. I was more serious than your average person in high school, but I certainly wasn’t devoting hours at a time to practice, which in retrospect I wish I would have.
JazzUSA: What do you attribute to the transition of going from a hobby player to one that made this his work?
EA: My first year away from home when I was in school at Indiana University, I was trying to get a double major in political science and music and I just realized, just about half way through that year, I guess I was just bitten by the bug, so to speak. First of all, I realized that that was what was coming most easily to me, was music and second of all, I think being around a lot of musicians who were at a much higher level than me and who were also exposing me to a lot of different types of, or more interesting and different types of music, particularly jazz music, just, sort of, really influenced me and pushed me in that direction.
JazzUSA: Who gave you your first break?
EA: Well, I don’t know if this would be a big break, but my first break, in terms of working professionally, was through a singer in Chicago named Lennie Lynn. He heard me playing at some jazz session. I guess this was the early part of 1991. He said, “I want you to join my band. I have three nights a week.” And so that was it. That was my first break.
JazzUSA: What are the subtle differences between playing alongside a vocalist to that of an instrumentalist?
EA: Actually, Fred, the nice thing about this gig was that the first half of every set, he would just have the group, which consisted of organs, drums, and myself play organ trio. And then he would come up and sing the second half of the set, so I got to do both. It was great learning because the musicians were much older than me and they had very developed repertoires and I had to learn a lot of tunes, especially for Lennie, for the singer, I mean, a lot of tunes that I probably never would have learned. In addition to all that, every gig we did, usually by the last set, he would be having other people come up and sing and or play, sitting in. They all had another group of tunes that they were doing or each person would come up and they’d have their own set of tunes that they liked to do so I had to learn to “A”, play by ear a lot of times and “B”, I learned a lot of those tunes also.
JazzUSA: Let’s touch on your time with Charles Earland.
EA: Charles, actually, Charles drummer at that time, heard me warming up in some house in Michigan, at this small jazz festival that they used to have there during the summer. I was up there playing with a local Chicago band. Charles group was up there as well and like I said, his drummer heard me warming up and said, “Oh, I’m going to tell Charles about you.” I just thought that was sort of ridiculous. Apparently he did and a few months later, after Charles had actually had a heart attack and had been not touring and just re-cooperating. He decided to start fresh with a new group. He called me to join and that was that.
JazzUSA: I’m always bewildered as to why you are prefaced by your second placing to Joshua Redman in the Thelonious Monk Competition.
EA: Well, that’s probably the most prestigious, at least in terms of press coverage, of any so-called jazz competition. In 1991, they held the competition for saxophonists, I believe, it was for the first time. I’m almost a hundred percent sure. And I wasn’t really considering entering it, but the head of the jazz department at William Patterson College suggested that I do so, so I went ahead and entered. It turned out to be a really good thing for me because, at the time, I was living in Chicago and I didn’t have a lot of contact with the other young musicians who ended up going to Washington D.C. and participating. First of all, I just got to make a lot of acquaintances and second of all, I think it probably really helped my confidence. Although I felt that I was a good player, I didn’t really have a perspective of how I stood up against the other young people that were coming up in the jazz world. When I realized that I could hold my own, I think it really helped.
JazzUSA: Although Joshua has gone on to a much higher profile career, you’re no slouch, and in your own right, you have paved a formidable path of your own. How has not winning the Monk Competition helped you?
EA: I think it’s forced me to deal with a lot of things that maybe I, personally, wouldn’t have dealt with. I’m not saying that this is the case for Joshua, but in my case, if I would have been thrust to the forefront immediately, I probably would have overlooked a lot elements and areas of this music that I’ve been forced to deal with. Just doing all the trench gigs that I’ve had to do over the years. It makes you become a very comprehensive musician, because you have to be prepared for every type of situation rather than leading your own group, in which, maybe you can play off of your strengths at all times. Many times, I’ve had to play off of my weaknesses. I’ve been forced into situations where I wasn’t really comfortable or didn’t think that that was necessarily my cup of tea, but I’ve had to adapt. It’s made me more of a well-rounded player, certainly, than I would have been.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your new album on Milestone, “Man With a Horn.”
EA: It was actually recorded two years ago. It was released in Japan, very early in 1998. I have Cedar Walton on the album. On a scale of one to ten, Cedar, as a pianist and composer gets an eleven. He’s just a no-brainer. Anytime you can have anybody of that caliber, no explanation is needed. He is one of the truly, he’s one of the very, most important voices out there. I’ve loved his music for years and years and I was just so happy to be able to have him. I think it turned out great. It’s sort of a miracle that it did because the week before we recorded, I was actually stranded in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, skiing. They had a big snowstorm and I couldn’t get out. I didn’t have my horn with me and I couldn’t practice. I only had my mouthpiece. I was sitting around snowed in, in a cabin, buzzing on a mouthpiece. I was just praying that I was going to get back to New York and being able to have my chops ready for this record. When I got back, I was practicing absolutely all day, trying to get my lip back to health, because it had been well over, I usually consider I have about three or four days that I can take off and get it back. In this case, because of the snowstorm, I had taken off something like nine or ten days. I just beat my lip into raw hamburger. I didn’t think that I would be able to do it, but I was too afraid to tell the record company. I just went into the studio anyway and it worked out really well.
JazzUSA: Any tour plans?
EA: Don’t have any plans as of yet. This summer, I’m going to be touring in Europe with a tribute to the Jazz at the Philharmonic series that was organized by a prominent Spanish promoter. It’s going to be a very interesting group because it’s going to contain Nicholas Payton, Jessie Davis, and myself, Pete Bernstein, Mulgrew Miller, Lewis Nash, and Peter Washington, Terrell Stafford, and Harry Allen, sort of a giant traveling show for about a month. That’s my next big priority focus. I’m sure we’re going to find ways to have one or two songs per set where not everyone is on stage. We better or else it’s going to be year long sets. But it should be very fun.
JazzUSA: Are you looking to put something together when you return?
EA: Well, we’re planning some things with One For All for next year. I’m pretty much booked through the summer, but not with, no, I’m wrong about that. One For All is going to be playing at the Jazz Standard in New York City from August 11 to the 16 or 17. In the early part of September, I’ll be at the Blue Note with Pat Martino, whom I’ve been working with.
JazzUSA: How has that been?
EA: Oh, that’s incredible. That’s one of the best things I’ve done in the last few years, without a doubt. I just want to work more with him because every time I do it’s like a learning experience. He’s playing so much music on the guitar, it’s ridiculous.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your work with your group, One For All.
EA: That’s really, I don’t know how to put it. I want to say my pride and joy, but that sounds ridiculous. That’s really, how should I put it? It’s really one of the most important aspects of my career right now. That’s a group that was formed about four years ago now with some of my closest contemporaries here in New York. Three of them appear on this new release, Jim Rotondi on trumpet, Steve Davis, trombone, Dave Hazeltine on piano, Joe Farnsworth on drums, and Peter Washington on the bass. Forming that group has really given my playing and everyone in the groups playing, a new direction. We were very close to doing this all along. We played together virtually every weekend at a club in New York, either as an entire group or fragments of the group. Just by sitting down and coming to the conclusion that we need to record this band. We need to write for this band, et cetera, et cetera. It really motivated all of us to start writing for that group and to start trying to think of ways to use that ensemble sound and still have interesting solo sections. We’ve all really progressed and contributed a tremendous amount of material for that sextet. We have two records out. We’ve documented some of that, but we really have a whole wealth of material that is constantly growing and expanding. In the future, all of us really hope that we can make that group the most important element of each of our careers. We would like to make that the primary unit that we work with.
JazzUSA: You are all around the same age and have been stapled with the “young lion” label, is that tiresome?
EA: I don’t mind it because, well I don’t know if you consider that bad press, but they say bad press is better than no press. I don’t really mind, as long as they are talking about you, it’s fine. With regard to the young lions thing, I did a tour in Japan a couple of years ago with Bob Berg and they were calling him a young lion and I think he’s about forty-six years old. I don’t know what young lion means anymore. I think, basically, it means didn’t rise to prominence in the late fifties. It’s a pretty irrelevant term.
JazzUSA: And the future?
EA: It’s too soon to tell. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I have a couple doors that have opened to me and I’m just trying to figure out what to do, primarily because I spent, as you know, the last seven years or so, sort of, jumping around from small label to small label and now that I’ve got some options in terms of bigger labels, I just want to make sure that I do everything correctly and at a little slower of a pace. I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do, but I’m trying not to be too hasty about the decisions.
JazzUSA: You were initially contemplating a major in political science, are you still interested in politics?
EA: Oh, God, no. I have a casual interest like most people, but no, I’m not at home reading the New Republic every week like I used to. Not even close, absolutely not, I would say I’m more interested in Yankee baseball than the New York Senate race at this point.
JazzUSA: Finish this, I am.
EA: I am very pleased with this new release on Milestone Records and I think it is representative of my playing at this current stage and I’m very proud to have performed with the legendary Cedar Walton and my fellow musicians on