“I’d say my longest job other than Lee Morgan was with J.J., or maybe Wes,” Mabern says. “I always say, ‘Don’t leave the job, let the job leave you.'”
Mabern’s footloose attitude has served him well, keeping him steadily employed and challenged creatively, if something of an overlooked treasure. But there’s one gig that he hasn’t let slip away. Over the past 15 years, Mabern has anchored the quartet of tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, his former student at William Paterson University, forming one of jazz’s most productive and rewarding partnerships. Through countless gigs around the world and nearly two dozen albums, including nine under Alexander’s name and four by bebop baritone boss Cecil Payne on Delmark, Mabern’s musical backing has been an essential component of the saxophonist’s rise to the top ranks of straightahead improvisers.
“I was telling my wife the other day, George Coleman and Frank Strozier and I got out of high school 52 years ago, yet I’ve been on more records with Eric than anybody I’ve ever played with,” Mabern says. “We have a special relationship. It wasn’t planned that way. I told him, ‘I appreciate you using me on your stuff.’ He said, ‘I didn’t promise you anything because at the time I didn’t know if I’d get anything.’ No offense to anybody else, but he’s hiring me because of the way I support him. He needs me. Like I always tell George Coleman, ‘I can use the money, but feel free to hire somebody else.’ You don’t always have to hire me, but if you feel you’ve just got to have me, I’m here for you. I don’t know how much longer I can keep playing like this. I’m 70 years old.”
There’s obviously nothing unusual about a veteran player taking a young cat under his or her wing. From the beginning jazz has been passed on as an oral tradition, and even in an age when a good deal of mentoring takes place in academic settings, there’s no substitute for a communion honed on the bandstand. What sets Alexander’s relationship with Mabern apart is the symbiotic way it has elevated both musicians. Since Mabern prides himself on his work as a sideman, he’s never put much energy into leading his own group. Alexander’s growing notoriety has supplied the pianist with both satisfaction and a regularly working combo in which he’s encouraged to contribute ideas and tunes.
“Harold is the perfect support and foil for Eric,” says trumpeter Jim Rotondi, who has collaborated widely with Alexander in various contexts, including One for All, a cooperative sextet that released The Lineup in July, its third album for Sharp Nine. “Eric’s really made an in-depth study of different harmonic sequences and ways to explore certain turnarounds, and Harold is all over that. Sometimes it’s almost scary when I’m on the bandstand with those guys. We might play any kind of standard—’Stella’ or whatever—and they’ll both have all these little harmonic devices to go around these chord sequences. I think a lot of that comes from Harold’s work with George Coleman, since George is also one of Eric’s mentors. Harold’s ecstatic about all the great things happening for Eric. He’s made the transition from being Harold’s number-one ‘A’ student at William Paterson to being one of the foremost saxophonists on the jazz scene, and Harold’s included in that on the bandstand, so how could he not be ecstatic about it?”
At an August performance at the Stanford Jazz Festival, Mabern gave voice to his pride in Alexander’s rise, taking over the microphone to extol him as a “musical genius,” a ritual that has become almost embarrassing for the saxophonist. The praise only confirmed what was happening onstage. Backing Alexander in a quartet with bassist Rodney Whitaker and Joe Farnsworth, a tremendously resourceful but unflashy drummer who has become the tenor saxophonist’s alter ego, Mabern’s stabbing block chords instigated a steady counter conversation as Alexander ripped through a typical set, mixing well-known standards with jazz tunes ideal for blowing. But Mabern’s contribution to the proceedings went far beyond his superlative comping. He also devised many of the charts, including an unfussy uptempo treatment of “Almost Like Being in Love,” and contributed several original tunes to the band’s book, like his funky hard-bop anthem “Rakin’ and Scrapin’.” The concert’s high point was a duet between Mabern and Alexander on the obscure ballad “I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do,” one of many overlooked tunes that the pianist has brought to the saxophonist’s attention.
“He’s given me so much leeway,” Mabern says. “On most of the records we’ve made, a lot of the songs on there were arranged and conceived by me as far as the introductions. We both feel the same way about the music. I always give him good obscure tunes that have been slighted. Like on this latest record, It’s All in the Game, there’s a tune ‘Bye Bye Baby’ from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Carol Channing that got by Coltrane, Johnny Griffin and George Coleman. It would have been made to order for them.”
Alexander is quick to acknowledge the incalculable importance of his relationship with Mabern. There’s the validation of gaining the respect of a revered teacher, and the affection from the close friendship they’ve forged over the years. But more than anything, he counts on the visceral power that Mabern brings to the bandstand night after night. In many ways, Alexander willed himself into jazz’s elite by refusing to wilt under the pressure of Mabern’s steamroller delivery, a test of confidence and mental stamina that took him years to completely master.
“He’ll give you everything he’s got. That’s what really draws me to him,” says Alexander, 38. “A lot of people can’t deal with that. It’s too strong for them. And on occasion it’s been too strong for me, because he’ll come up with some stuff on the spur of the moment that might not be what you’re thinking of playing. You either have to have the ability to just roll over it, and not go with him and be confident about what you’re doing, or be able to go with him. If you can’t do either, you just get stopped in your tracks.
“That’s really one of the lessons it’s taken me many years to figure out,” he continues. “A lot of the master musicians from the ’50s and ’60s, when you’re talking about interplay between soloist and rhythm section, it doesn’t have to be me-and-my-shadow all the time. One guy can be playing one thing, and another guy can be playing something else, and sometimes that’s the most beautiful kind of sound. You think about Trane and McCoy. Oftentimes Trane’s playing something and McCoy’s playing something that has no relation, really. Rhythmically it has a relation, but harmonically if you were to analyze it, it’s an extreme clash. It takes a long time to have the confidence to fight through something that’s that strong.”
Compared to many of his contemporaries, Alexander dedicated himself to jazz relatively late. He played alto sax in various grade-school ensembles while growing up in Olympia, Wash., but hadn’t been exposed to much of the jazz canon before he went off to college at Indiana University. He entered school as a music major and it didn’t take long for him to fall in with a cadre of jazz-obsessed students.
During the course of his freshman year, Alexander determined that to pursue his passion he needed to get close to New York City, which is how he ended up at William Paterson. For an aspiring jazz musician, the college proved far more than geographically desirable. Bassist Rufus Reid headed a jazz department that also included Mabern, pianist Norman Simmons and reed master Joe Lovano, with whom Alexander studied for two years. As Mabern recounts it, Alexander was already an impressive player when he arrived at the Wayne, N.J., campus.
“When I first heard him play I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is an A-plus student,'” Mabern recalls. “Even at his age then, his ability to improvise, his knowledge of chord changes and the kind of control he had was so phenomenal. I had him play ‘Embraceable You’ and he had never played it before. He just used his ears. My impression then was that I knew he was destined for greatness, without a doubt. He had everything you needed to be a great jazz artist. He had a passion for practicing. He’d be late for class maybe 10 minutes and it’s because he couldn’t find a practice room and he’d be out in the hallways and then realize that time had gone by.”
Alexander’s work ethic also caught the attention of his peers. In the late 1980s, he lived in an apartment building on 92nd Street that sheltered an impressive circle of aspiring players, such as Jim Rotondi, pianist Brad Mehldau, organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and bassist Michael Zisman. “There were a lot of talented people there, a lot of the young guys who are well known now,” Zisman says. “It was clear for instance that Brad Mehldau was one of the most naturally gifted. He worked hard, but I never saw anybody work as hard as Eric. He trained like an athlete.” In fact, Alexander is an athlete, an expert downhill skier and a runner who completed the Chicago Marathon in well under three hours, finishing in the top 600.
In applying the same dogged determination to his art, Alexander has absorbed the music of tenor titans Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson and particularly George Coleman. Like Coleman, Alexander possesses a lithe and rounded middleweight tone. And there’s no denying that Alexander shares Coleman’s penchant for long, flowing lines. But their sounds stand in about the same relationship as Stan Getz’s did to Lester Young’s. One can’t imagine the former without the latter, but telling them apart takes only a moment. Alexander makes a convincing case that after Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, Coleman has contributed to more definitive recordings than any other living tenor player. A cursory list would include Miles Davis’ My Funny Valentine and Four and More, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and the first, eponymous album by the Eastern Rebellion collective.
“He’s a musical genius,” Alexander says. “It amazes me now that we have a friendly relationship. We’ll call each other on the phone and talk about music or other guys on the scene we’re hanging out with. He’s down to earth, but that phrase can be misconstrued, because he’s also super heavy. He loves to talk about music. He loves to hip you to what he’s been thinking about. He’s not one of these people who has a limited bag of tricks and doesn’t want you to figure out what he’s doing, because God forbid you might supersede him. That’s the furthest possible thing from his mind. He knows how difficult it is to play this music with brains and brawn. As he likes to say, a lot of people just put a lot of hot air through their horn, but they don’t use their brain or their ears. He’s all about using everything at the same time, being a physical player, playing strong but being very intellectual.”
The friendship with Coleman didn’t develop until later, after Alexander settled in New York in the mid-’90s. When he graduated from William Paterson, Alexander didn’t think he was seasoned enough to take on the Big Apple, so he moved to Chicago, where his mother was living. “I didn’t feel I was ready to make a splash in New York,” Alexander says. “I needed a little more time to get my bandstand chops together. I always had a thing for Chicago jazz—Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Eddie Harris, all the Chicago tenor men. To go there and really start working in those clubs that featured organ jazz, for me that was a real kick.”
Before long he hooked up with Charles Earland, an intermittent gig that lasted for nine years and led to his first recording session, 1992’s Unforgettable on Muse. It was a relationship that schooled him in the ways of the road and set him on his present trajectory. When Alexander talks about the organist, who died in 1999 at the age of 58, it’s easy to hear echoes of his regard for Mabern.
“He rolled over most of the sidemen that he worked with,” Alexander says. “I think that’s one of the reasons we hit it off. I was a very immature player at the time, but I could keep up with him energy-wise. I wouldn’t wilt under the pressure and we’d just go nuts, playing as hard as we could. I always say I have two real musical fathers. Harold got me right as I was blossoming and transformed me, and Charles was the guy who first snatched me up and took me on the road. He had a profound effect on the way I play and the way I feel about presenting myself.”
For Mabern, the opportunity to make an impression on the young saxophonist resulted from a lifelong reverence for teaching. Born and raised in Memphis, he came under the sway of the brilliant but troubled pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. After graduating from high school in 1953, Mabern moved to Chicago to pursue his education, thinking he would join his buddy, the prodigious altoist Frank Strozier, at the Chicago Conservatory. “But my family’s financial situation changed and I couldn’t enroll,” Mabern says. “So I feel I missed out being a part of college, so whenever I get a chance to go and teach I always feel good about it.”
His first important gig was in the MJT+3, taking over the piano chair from Richard Abrams. The popular band featured Walter Perkins, Bob Cranshaw, Willie Thomas, Bobby Bryant and Strozier (his other Memphis homeboys George Coleman and Booker Little had already passed through the group). While it’s been reported that he studied with Ahmad Jamal, Mabern states that he never took a formal lesson with him. “My studying was from the bandstand, by going to the club and listening to him,” he says. When the MJT+3 scored a hit with Bryant’s tune “Sleepy,” it helped pave the way for them to move to New York. With a couple of weeks at Birdland and some regular gigs at Small’s Paradise, they had enough work to survive in the city long enough to get their union cards.
Mabern likes to tell the story about how he landed his first real New York gig when Cannonball Adderley introduced him to Sweets Edison at Birdland. “Cannonball and Miles all knew me from Chicago with the MJT+3, so when I went to Birdland and Cannonball saw me, he said, ‘Hey, Big Hands, you want a gig?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He took me down and introduced me to Sweets, because Tommy Flanagan was getting ready to leave to go with J.J. Johnson. I sat in not even knowing the tune that Sweets called, which was ‘Getting to Be a Habit With Me,’ and he hired me on the spot. I went right back to Chicago with Sweets, Elvin Jones, Gene Ramey and Jimmy Forrest and worked at the Blue Note for two weeks for $250 a week, which was a lot of money.”
By the time Mabern joined Edison, he was already one of jazz’s finest accompanists. Inspired by Wynton Kelly, he forged a compressed, irresistibly swinging style. Like Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles, Hank Jones and Gerald Wiggins, Mabern says he refined his craft working for singers, where he honed his ability to provide precisely what’s needed at any particular moment. But mostly, Mabern explains his nonpareil status as the result of his unceasing love of comping.
“Most piano players, they don’t love to comp,” Mabern says. “They just do it because it’s a necessity. When you comp, you’ve got to think like a big band. And you can’t comp the same way for everybody. I could play the same chord voicings behind Benny Golson as for Art Farmer, but with Art I’d have to be a little bit more spacey, like with Miles. With Eric Alexander, George Coleman or John Coltrane, I could comp as much as I want and push them, like McCoy did with Trane. With Joe Henderson or Frank Strozier, I could use the same voicings, but with a little bit more space. All the jobs that I’ve gotten are because people like the way I comp, more so than solo. Your soloing’s personal, but when people say I hired you because I love the way you comp, that’s the greatest compliment that can be paid.”
It’s a compliment that Eric Alexander plans to keep paying his former teacher for as long as he can.