Eric Alexander is a master of hard-bop tenor saxophone whose work has been well documented on over 40 records as a leader. Leap of Faith comes as a shock. It unveils a new Alexander, one who lives on the edge: freer, rawer, more searching, more relentless.
One reason is the format. Only once before has Alexander recorded in a chordless trio. Here he is alone with bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Johnathan Blake. Other reasons have to do with Alexander’s new label and new producer/engineer. Giant Step Arts is a radical concept, a nonprofit dedicated to liberating artists from “sales chart expectations” and providing them with total creative freedom. The founder is Jimmy Katz, the renowned jazz photographer who is also a groundbreaking engineer, specializing in live recordings. Katz recorded Leap of Faith at the Jazz Gallery in New York. It captures the electricity, the juice, of a hot night in a club with the sonic resolution usually achievable only in the best studios.
From the opening track, “Luquitas,” Alexander’s ideas come in torrents. In his words, he “just lets things fly.” But two of his longstanding virtues, a classic tenor tone and conceptual clarity, keep his fierce strivings musical and harmonically coherent. “Hard Blues” and “Frenzy” are unleashed passion, shaped by Alexander’s sense of wholeness. “Second Impression” is a wild, 13-minute ride but also a clever contrafact based on John Coltrane’s “Impressions.”
Alexander is even better when he slows down. “Corazon Perdito” and “Big Richard” (a moving eulogy for his late father) linger over and around their forms and reveal his talent for locating emotion in spontaneous melody.
The austere, open format of the saxophone trio has stimulated some epic albums by people like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and Ornette Coleman. Add Eric Alexander to the list.