Beyond possessing one of the most beautiful tenor saxophone tones in all of jazz, Eric Alexander has set himself apart from his peers by building a vast repertoire studded with undeservedly obscure tunes.
Just about every Alexander album features at least two or three pieces inexplicably overlooked by fellow horn players, and his latest release, "Touching" (HighNote), is no exception. A captivating ballad session featuring the 77-year-old piano great Harold Mabern, the album includes a torchy version of Michel LeGrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman's "The Way She Makes Me Feel" from "Yentl," the elegantly anguished Nat King Cole vehicle "Dinner for One Please, James," and a slow-burning rendition of "Oh Girl," the Chi-Lites 1972 chart-topper.
"That's Mabes," says Alexander, 45, referring to his mentor-turned-bandmate Harold Mabern. "He knows a million songs, and he's always suggesting pieces he thinks will work for me."
'Good obscure tunes'
Alexander and Mabern join forces Sunday at Dinkelspiel Auditorium as part of the Stanford Jazz Festival, where they've both served on faculty many times over the past 12 years, and Monday at Kuumbwa. The pianist prides himself on gleaning interesting songs overlooked by other jazz musicians, and he's made a point of keeping Alexander supplied with a steady flow of material.
"I always give him good obscure tunes that have been slighted," Mabern says, noting that he's particularly pleased with bringing forward the title track of the saxophonist's 2006 album "It's All in the Game," a 1958 hit for Tommy Edwards. It features a sinuous melody written in 1911 by Charles Dawes, who went on to serve as vice president under Calvin Coolidge.
"There's another tune on that album, 'Bye Bye Baby' from 'Gentleman Prefer Blondes' with Carol Channing, that got by Coltrane, Johnny Griffin and George Coleman," Mabern says, listing three tenor sax giants he played with. "It would have been made to order for them."
In a career stretching over half a century, Mabern has played and recorded with an eye-popping array of jazz legends, from Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard to Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He's recorded numerous albums under his own name over the years (including a trio session released a few weeks ago, "Live at Smalls"), but he's made his mark as an accompanist of uncommon power, another point of pride.
"Most piano players, they don't love to comp (accompany)," 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. All the jobs that I've gotten are because people like the way I comp.
"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."
Major league talent
For Sunday's Stanford gig, Alexander and Mabern are joined by another jazz great noted for his unyielding rhythmic support: drummer Louis Hayes, who's been a major league talent since his teenage years in Detroit with Curtis Fuller and Yusef Lateef. He went on to play an essential role in two of the hard bop era's definitive rhythm sections, with pianist/composer Horace Silver (1956—1959) and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet (1959—1965), and he hasn't lost a step at the age of 76.
The Stanford horn section is equally formidable, with Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch, who's equally renowned for his work in straight-ahead and Latin jazz settings, and trombonist Steve Davis, a skilled arranger who's worked widely with Alexander in the New York hard bop collective One for All.
At Kuumbwa, Alexander and Mabern form a quartet with drummer Peppe Merolla and bassist Michael Zisman, a classmate of Alexander's at New Jersey's William Patterson University in the late 1980s when they both studied with Mabern.
"He's worked with Eric all these years, and it's a pretty amazing thing to see the tradition of jazz passed down that way," Zisman says. "I remember the one thing that Mabes stressed is melody.
"Eric is one of the great melody players, something you don't hear a lot of in jazz today. He's exciting, too. Mabes puts out a lot of passion. You combine the great melodies with exciting improvisation, and it makes for a fun show."