Eric Alexander, on the scene since the early 1990s, is from the masculine school of tenor saxophone rhapsody. Throughout Touching, an album of ballads, he projects melodic conviction, deep feeling and mature expression. There is a blues and gospel influence that descends from Stanley Turrentine and an occasional out-there burst of spirituality reminiscent of John Coltrane in Alexander’s playing; in other words, this is not ballad-lite. Pianist Harold Mabern (Alexander’s teacher at William Paterson University), bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth, longtime Alexander associates, accompany the saxophonist.
The title tune, by pianist Bobby Lyle, is a bluesy line that Alexander eases into lazily, with Mabern’s funky piano urging him on to an aggressive finish. “Gone Too Soon,” popularized by Michael Jackson, and the Chi-Lites’ “Oh, Girl” are the kind of post-American Popular Song-era tunes that jazz musicians ought to connect with more often. On Coltrane’s “Central Park West,” Alexander’s warm tone, flurried runs and Stan Getz-like trills show a viable alternative to and variation on the composer’s way of playing—but we hear some busy McCoy Tyner-like runs from the ever-resourceful Mabern.
Alexander also evokes Trane here and there on Jimmy Dorsey’s “I’m Glad There Is You” and Cahn and Van Heusen’s “The September of My Years,” and Mabern digs into a clipped, stride-piano feel on the former. This stride feel gooses other performances as well, and Mabern is a joyfully rhythmic accompanist and strong soloist overall. Although Webber and Farnsworth don’t get a chance to kick up much of a ruckus on the album, they’re felt throughout.