Eric Alexander

Mode for Mabes

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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos

Coming of age as a premier tenor saxophonist, Alexander pays tribute to the jazz icon from Memphis, pianist Mabern, by featuring him on this recording with a sextet who also pay a debt to the great edition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers frontlined by Wayne-Shorter, Lee Morgan, and Curtis Fuller. This is modern mainstream post-to-hard bop at its finest, wth Alexander and Mabern's supporting cast making all of this music simply come alive. Trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Jim Rotundi, bassist John Webber, and drummer George Fludas clearly have Blue Note and Riverside late-'50s jazz in their bones, and it seeps out of every swinging pore. Alexander shows much influence from Shorter, George Coleman, and Joe Henderson. His sound is fleet, literate, and blues-drenched, and he hits every note with seeming perfection and deep knowledge. Featured on the ballad to easy-swinging versions of "Stairway to the Stars" and "For Heaven's Sake," his performances further evidence his development as a topnotch interpreter and improvisor. The rest of the band achieve good solos on the over ten-minute "Heaven's Sake" and the 11-minute plus, 6/8 version of "Naima." The musicians in this frontline, with their rich harmonic tilt, assert themselves collectively on "Naima," the title track, and "Erik the Red," their strong suit. "Erik," penned by Davis, is truly a great piece of spirited writing that displays unity, anchored by Mabern's repeated triple chords and Alexander's long, loping giraffe-neck lines. "Mode for Mabes" not only lets the band fly on a Jazz Messenger-flavored, easy-swinging, democratic melody, but it also casts a bright spotlight on Mabern. He is about as lyrical a pianist as there is in jazz today, and this piece, as well as the other compositions, shows the compatible group making those melodic statements blossom. Whether chiming and resonant for the intro of "Stairway," brimming with soul and conviction on Phineas Newborn Jr.'s "Sugar Ray," or absolutely killing on his solo during "Naima," Mabern's musicianship is as precious as a truckload of diamonds. Of course, the band can swing hard, as they do on the dramatic, meaty melody of "Stay Straight"; they can also get happy, chasing all cares away on the easy swinger "Love Thy Neighbor." You won't find a better modern mainstream jazz recording of the '90s than this one. It's a canididate for best jazz CD of 1998, a feather in Alexander's cap, and a musical triumph for Mabern; it can not come less than highly recommended.

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