When you peruse the song list of Eric Alexander With Strings and notice “Lonely Woman” and “The Thrill Is Gone,” you naturally think of Ornette Coleman and B.B. King. But the tenor saxophonist is actually covering, respectively, one of the more obscure compositions from Horace Silver’s classic Song for My Father and one of the desolation angels from the Chet Baker catalog.
Alexander seeks to tweak expectations the same way on a macro level with this outing, honoring the form but subtly subverting the content of the standard “sax with strings” program. Dave Rivello’s orchestral arrangements inevitably buffer and billow the mix, but whenever they threaten to become anything more than a tonal matte, trenchant phrasing from Alexander or pianist David Hazeltine casts them to the background. The core quartet, which also includes drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist John Webber, has played together hundreds if not thousands of times; eliminate the strings and you’d still have a satisfying, though sparser, album.
Indulging atypically in ballads instead of his usual dazzling hard-bop template, Alexander himself wrote the tune that thrives most naturally with the orchestra—the album opener “Gently.” Two of the other five songs are taken from Sarah Vaughan’s 1965 exploration of the Henry Mancini songbook. “Dreamsville” enables Alexander to marinate, à la Ben Webster, in a luscious tone, while “Slow Hot Wind” breaks into a Latin jazz groove. Along with a mid-song solo and coda on Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time,” this is where Alexander takes the most liberties with the sax-strings formula.
In 2019, Alexander released arguably the most adventuresome album of his career, Leap of Faith, a chordless trio affair with a rhythm section of Johnathan Blake and Doug Weiss. The material for With Strings was done in four sessions between 2011 and 2013 and seems well-aimed to be a counterbalance toward classicism. Fortunately, Alexander has enough scholarship and discernment to still push the envelope here, if not break the mold.
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