Sunday, March 20, 2011

Eric Alexander
Blues For All transcription

From the Sharp Nine recording Too Soon To Tell, recorded February 25, 1997.

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Eric Alexander
Blues For All transcription
Although Eric Alexander is a nearly perfect human tenor saxophonist — his sound, time feel, articulation and execution on the horn are exemplars of human saxophone playing — I absolutely can imagine being able to play like him: if I spent ten years in some sort of saxophonist monastery where my meals were prepared for me and I was able to put the horn on my face for 8-12 hours a day, under the guidance of nurturing and wise sax master monks, I can see myself emerging at the end of the retreat playing the horn and executing Alexanderish lines with his flawless poise.

In that regard, I differentiate him from post-human, freak-of-nature saxophonists like Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin: guys who, whether as the result of prenatal exposure to gamma radiation or an X-Fileish intermingling of human and alien DNA, play and think on the horn in ways that are demonstrably non-human, and where no amount of monastic sequestration would ever enable me, a human, to play like them.

This photo of Eric Alexander is by Dave Kaufman, and is used with his kind permission. Check out Kaufman’s other great shots at his
All About Jazz photo gallery.
(However: as I further ponder my important and groundbreaking hypothesis here, it’s worth noting that Alexander was already a freakishly great player at a young age, so I’m not entirely vouchsafing his credentials as a human: it’s conceivable he’s some sort of kinder & gentler alien spawn who has chosen to focus on aspects of saxophony that us lesser species might still aspire to. Without blood tests and dissection, there’s really no way to know.)

Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah: Alexander started out intending to be a classical saxophonist, discovering jazz only after going to Indiana University to study with the legendary classical saxophonist Eugene Rousseau, and I have to wonder if Alexander’s “legit” (crummy term, but what can you do?) roots play a part in his refined technical mastery of the horn.

Whatever: his 7 choruses on this C minor (tenor key) blues offer a nice demonstration of getting a lot of mileage from simple motivic devices; succinct use of the altered scale to set up quick tension/resolution speed bumps; basic chord superimpositions to increase harmonic interest; along with a few curveballs in the form of some unusual melodic devices.

Let me point out specific examples of the above:
  • Simple motivic devices

    Eric occasionally grabs a simple melodic motif, like the cliché-ish triplet riff that begins his 2nd chorus (mm. 13-15), but then spins it out in an unexpected but logical way, as he does at mm. 16-17.

    At the start of his 6th chorus he plays an incredibly simple little triplet figure — but then starts throwing it around and sequencing it in other keys. Whenever I see stuff like this, I feel like I’m not sufficiently exploring this kind of “basic” material in my practice regime — although these are simple devices, it’s only through serious attention on the horn that one develops this kind of “casual” fluency with them: on a tune moving at a bright 224 bpm, Alexander’s ease with the material belies its technical challenges.

    Finally, regarding motivic devices: the 4th chorus always makes me smile, because, intentionally or not, it calls to mind Oliver Nelson’s opening maneuver on his Stolen Moments solo — at about 3 times the speed!

  • Altered scale

    If there were an Altered Scale 101 course offered by some especially cool university, mm. 10-11 would be played on the first day of class to demonstrate the characteristic sound of a V7-I resolution using the altered scale. Mm. 22-23 would also be on the syllabus. (However, mm. 50-52 represent a special case that will be addressed in a moment...)

  • Basic chord superimpositions

    Eric uses these throughout to add harmonic variety to the blues form; the 3rd chorus is probably the most obvious example.

  • Curveballs

    The solo starts off with a bit of a curveball: Eric takes a basic F pentatonic scale, but precedes each note with its upper chromatic neighbor, transforming the blandly wholesome girl-next-door pentatonic sound into a strangely exotic foreign temptress exchange student. (Or something like that.) At any rate: sounds pretty cool — and again makes me realize I take certain “basic” melodic fodder (like pentatonic scales!) for granted, when I could be doing so much more...

    Also in the curveball category is an angular little altered scale “tone row” thing he sequences in mm. 50-52: it’s worked out, in that it’s not something likely to spontaneously fall under your fingers on the fly, but it’s based on all the “juicy” notes of the altered scale, so I’m gonna chalk this one up as an “altered curveball.”

Okay, so that’s all there is to it: just master all this stuff, have perfect chops and a perfect sound, and you’ll play just like Eric Alexander! (By the way: for just under a ding-dang buck you can download this track from Amazon — and then, using that track with this transcription, it’s like having a little mini-lesson with Eric Alexander for a buck! Why would you not do that? I’ll also point out that the album Too Soon To Tell also has the most unexpectedly hip 3-horn arrangement of Alfie you’ve ever heard, and you can download the whole album for peanuts, so what the heck?)


Don't have this fine recording? You can get it from Amazon in the following formats:

Instant MP3 Download of the track Blues For All Instant MP3 Download of the album Too Soon To Tell CD of the album Too Soon To Tell

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3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the nice blog article, and the comments that go with it.

    I totally agree with your comments concerning Eric Alexander, but I also see some of these things concerning Chris Potter, or Donny McCaslin as basically the same thing. After all if you check out what McCaslin and Potter play it's just a more 'daring' direction than Alexander. Larger intervals, more complex rhythmical patterns, and of course a different harmonic direction - in general. Of course practice makes perfect, but also all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!

    I often think of Joe Henderson's amazing use of basic materiel when he was soloing. JH would often play simple arpeggios or scale patterns, yet in a way that made you think, 'why don't I think of those?', and in some way I think this is maybe what makes the difference between players (normal or outstanding).

    After all you now have dozens of - in this case - sax players who can play as well, and just like, Chris Potter and McCaslin, but they in general miss the point, except for the few misguided and immature listeners.

    Eric Alexander is in his own way a little like Joe Henderson, he plays standard material yet is able to transform simple ideas and scales just like 'that'! And your remark about the triplet figure made me immediately think of Warne Marsh, who used this type of idea all the time - moving a simple figure through the time.

    Of course I don't think that I'm going to put Eric Alexander on the same level (just yet) as Joe Henderson, Marsh and Co. However from the few CDs I have of him I must say that his playing always sounds fresh and swinging.

    Thanks again for your excellent article.

    p.s. You could always include - ex: using Divshare - a copy of your transcribed track. It would make looking at the solo more interesting AND it's not download-able either.

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  2. Great comments, joesh! I think Henderson is indeed a great example of a "Why didn't *I* think of that?" player who could make a lot out of simple gestures and motives. (Why didn't *I* think of him!)

    I think the musical turf that Potter et al chose to traverse is what sets them apart -- I think the technical challenges may ultimately be more or less the same whether going in Alexander's direction or in Potter's. My distinction, based on nothing but a notion: I can imagine being able to musically *think* like Alexander, but not like those other guys: they really do seem to be some other species...

    I get a little queasy about embedding the track, in part because I feel a bit evangelistic about getting folks to purchase the recordings and support the artists and whatnot. However, of course, the transcription without the track, as I lament elsewhere on this blog, doesn't come close to telling the whole story. Just to see how it feels, I've taken your suggestion and added a player with Alexander's solo, while still encouraging folks to buy the track... I've got to ponder this a bit...

    But thanks for your thoughtful comments!

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  3. Hi Kelly

    Nice to see the embedded player. I'm sure if people hear the music they sometimes become more inspired to check out the whole album, or at least next time they see the/an album by the same guy a itch to purchase.

    As for the thinking like Potter (et al), I think that you are what you listen to. I know players that are still in 1950 and half my age, others who have (as Sal Mosca once said) 'big ears and a cosmic pallet'. The listening is up to the individual, after all one can't be forced to hear more open sounds, it's part curiosity and part musicality. However, I can heartily suggest for stimulation checking out the good old Slonimsky. It makes you practice (an look at) intervals in a very systematic way. Whether there's anyway to use them in ones own playing is individual. Of course there are other books and listening, but that would be a whole blog article - LOL.

    Enough said otherwise it sounds like I'm moralizing .... ouch! Anyway, that's just my humble opinion, I hope it makes sense.

    Best - Joe

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