Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Alexander fit for CD

by Howard Reich, Tribune critic
May 20, 2008

They ought to make a record.

With tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander hitting hard and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra thundering behind him, it wasn't difficult to envision a potential partnership on CD.

Alexander and the CJO, in fact, seemed to energize each other--a sorely needed turn of events after the concert's surprisingly lumbering first half.

The program, which closed the CJO's subscription season, achieved its greatest moments once Alexander took the stage as guest soloist. Playing a tribute to the late saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, Alexander combined Turrentine's bluesy aesthetic with his own steeped-in-bebop syntax. If the musical results ultimately leaned more toward Alexander than Turrentine, listeners nonetheless could perceive Alexander in a somewhat altered light.

Anyone who has followed Alexander's work since he lived in the Chicago area in the early 1990s knows he combines a steely, gleaming tone with an unflinchingly muscular approach to bebop improvisation. His playing acquired a still harder edge after he moved from Chicago to New York. But the taut control and technical vigor of his work raised an obvious question: How would he address Turrentine's decidedly breezier, more populist musical language?

The answer was obvious from the start of this portion of the program: Alexander loosened up quite a bit (for him). The soulful phrases and gently swaying rhythms he produced in "River's Invitation" and the gauzy, openly romantic timbre he offered in the ballad "Maybe September" proved that the man can tamp down the intensity a bit.

Granted, in most of this music, Alexander sooner or later slipped back into the hard-driving rhythms and ferocious solo flights that have been his trademarks. Yet in orchestral showpieces such as "A Taste of Honey" and "A Kettle of Fish," both in brilliant orchestrations by Oliver Nelson, Alexander required all the fervor he could muster, with CJO artistic director Jeff Lindberg drawing massive blocks of fortissimo sound from his ensemble.

It was those two showpieces, enthusiastically applauded by a large audience, that suggested a recording featuring Alexander and the CJO could be significant. Certainly it would help diminish the memory of the first half of the program, in which the band played classic TV and film themes--including miniature masterpieces by Lalo Schifrin--with clunky rhythm and underachieving tempos.