Eric Alexander & Harold Mabern | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Eric Alexander & Harold Mabern 

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The invigorating tenor saxist Eric Alexander has been including pianist Harold Mabern in his groups since his debut recording, the 1992 Delmark release Straight Up. The May-December pair first met as student and teacher--the saxophonist studied with Mabern at William Paterson University in New Jersey--and they appear together on Alexander's terrific new Summit Meeting (Milestone), as well as in his working quartet. Each spent his formative years in the crucible of Chicago jazz, albeit three decades apart, before moving on to New York--something else that may have helped them bond. Mabern came to Chicago from his hometown of Memphis in 1954 and stayed till '59, playing with the all-but-forgotten MJT+3; Alexander, a native of Washington State, spent a couple postcollege years here in the late 80s and early 90s. Ever since the saxist leaped into the public eye by placing second in the 1991 Thelonious Monk competition, behind Joshua Redman, listeners and critics have been noting the similarities between his style and Dexter Gordon's: the broad and meaty tone, the behind-the-beat phrasing, the preference for bright but relaxed tempos, the all-encompassing lyricism. But in the past few years, Alexander has fully incorporated those characteristics into a style unbeholden to any one model; at 33 he's become his own man, undergirding his technical mastery with an emotional maturity too often absent in younger musicians. Naturally, he loves working with Mabern, who swings from the heels and purveys a similar combination of depth and bravura from the piano. Mabern digs his fingers deep into the keys, pouncing on dark, open chords that echo the work of the young McCoy Tyner--but Mabern started down this path in the mid-50s, before he'd have heard Tyner, and his evolution of a sound superficially similar to Tyner's shouldn't be mistaken for imitation. Rounding out the quartet for these shows are two locals, bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer George Fludas. Thursday, July 4, 8 and 10 PM, Friday and Saturday, July 5 and 6, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, July 7, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Abbott, Cheung Ching Ming.

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