by Ian Mann
October 22, 2018
They approach their chosen material with such energy and joie de vivre that you can’t help warming to them. Also they find so much to say in their solos that is genuinely fresh and exciting.
New York All-Stars
“Burnin’ In London”
(Ubuntu Records UBU0012)
New York All-Stars is, in fact, an international quartet fronted by the American tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. The group also includes the veteran pianist Harold Mabern, the French based American bassist Darryl Hall (no, not that one) and the Austrian drummer Bernd Reiter.
Released in September 2018 “Burnin’ In London” is sourced from two live performances by the quartet at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, Soho on 20 & 21 November 2017. In the true spirit of jazz the recording came about pretty much spontaneously. Ubuntu label boss Martin Hummel has long been a fan of Alexander’s playing and it was the saxophonist who initially helped to inspire Hummel to pursue a career in artist management and recording. One of Hummel’s artists had performed at the lunchtime slot at the Pizza on Sunday 19th November, the first day of the All-Star’s three night residency. After the show Hummel made a point of hanging around and speaking to Alexander as the saxophonist and his band prepared for their evening performance. Hummel suggested that to Alexander that they should collaborate on a recording together, to which the saxophonist nonchalantly replied “Why Not Now?”. Thus a host of recording and video equipment was rapidly moved into the Pizza to document the last two nights of the All-Stars’ residency.
Alexander is widely regarded as one of the best ‘straight-ahead’ tenor saxophonists around and he has appeared on over seventy five albums as a leader, co-leader or sideman. Among those with whom he has collaborated are such famous names as trombonist Steve Davis, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, drummer Jimmy Cobb, guitarist Pat Martino and pianists Cedar Walton and McCoy Tyner. I remember with particular affection the 2009 release “Sketchbook”, which found him guesting with a quintet led by British saxophonist Dave O’Higgins.
If anything Mabern’s discography is even more exhaustive than Alexander’s. Now aged 82 the Memphis born pianist has been a mainstay of the New York jazz scene since the late 1950s, releasing more than twenty albums as a leader and appearing as a sideman on literally scores more. He’s recorded frequently with Alexander but the list of those he has worked with reads like a ‘who’s who’ of jazz. Among those he has collaborated with are trumpeters Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, saxophonists Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jackie McLean, Archie Shepp, George Coleman, and Stanley Turrentine, guitarists Wes Montgomery and George Benson, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, and many, many more. And, as this album reveals, he’s still playing just as well as ever.
Perhaps unsurprisingly “Burnin’ In London” is a standards based set featuring the quartet stretching out at length on five jazz staples, with Mabern’s “Nightlife in Tokyo” the sole item of original material.
The album commences with a swinging version of “Almost Like Being In Love” with Alexander soloing in imperiously fluent fashion, propelled by Hall’s solid bass and the fast, crisp clip of Reiter’s drumming. But it’s Mabern’s imaginative comping that also catches the ear, as Hummel observes the interplay between the pianist and Alexander is “magical” throughout. So, too is Mabern’s joyous piano soloing, it’s hard to believe that the vivacious, fleet fingered keyboard work here is the playing of an 81 year old. Meanwhile Reiter also comes into his own as he enjoys a series of dynamic and highly inventive drum breaks.
“I Could Have Danced All Night” is a true, celebration delivered at a breakneck pace with plenty of razor sharp twists and turns along the way. Alexander takes the first solo again, really tearing it up on tenor as Hall and Reiter provide energetic support with the drummer particularly busy and inventive. Mabern is again a galvanising presence with his vigorous accompaniment and scintillating soloing. Reiter is again let off the leash with a series of even more incendiary drum breaks.
Mabern’s “Nightlife in Tokyo” is the only original tune in the set but has something of the feel of a standard. Oriental allusions, interspersed with his favoured blues, flavour the composer’s unaccompanied piano introduction, before Alexander and the rhythm section join in for the main theme statement and the saxophonist’s subsequent solo. It’s minor chord structure helps to give the piece more of a contemporary feel, but there’s no shortage of energy as, evidenced by Mabern’s barnstorming piano solo and Hall’s extended bass work out. And I just love Mabern’s liberal borrowing from Steely Dan during his piano feature – he goes back, Jack, and does it again.
Solo piano also introduces Jule Styne’s “It’s Magic”, notionally this set’s ballad item. Alexander then exhibits a tough but tender lyricism on tenor with a solo that combines sensitivity with great fluency. Mabern takes a more playful approach with an audaciously jaunty solo into which he manages to insert a series of witty musical quotes. The piece also includes an absorbing closing dialogue between the saxophonist and the pianist.
“The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”, not the pop hit but Jerry Brainin’s jazz standard from 1943, finds the quartet stretching out at length with Alexander’s supremely fluent opening salvo almost straying into Coltrane territory at times. He’s propelled on his way by the relentless drive of Mabern and the rhythm section and the energy levels don’t flag when the pianist takes his own extended solo. Reiter also features strongly with another series of volcanic drum breaks.
To conclude the quartet tackle that hoariest of old jazz chestnuts, George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. But the All-Stars’ approach almost turns the season on its head as they tackle the tune in full on mode with Alexander’s barnstorming solo just chock-full of ideas and again exhibiting a Coltrane-like intensity. Mabern sustains an incredible rhythmic drive throughout his piano solo and Hall keeps this going through his bass feature, the quartet’s collective energy is relentless. Finally we’re treated to some more explosive drumming from the consistently impressive Reiter. You’ve never heard “Summertime” played quite like this before.
I’m normally a little of wary of live recordings of jazz standards in the head-solos-head format, many of which can become over formulaic. But Alexander and Mabern approach their chosen material with such energy and joie de vivre that you can’t help warming to them. Also they find so much to say in their solos that is genuinely fresh and exciting; great skill, intelligence and fluency is harnessed to that energy and drive, plus a great sense of musical wit and humour too.
The saxophonist and pianist inevitably attract the majority of the attention but the playing from Hall and Reiter is terrific too. They really get behind the soloists and help to propel them to impressive heights while their own solos are more than mere tokens and consistently engage the listener. This All-Stars aggregation is genuinely a team. The inventiveness, energy and sheer quality of their performances justifies the award of four stars and a recommendation.
Perhaps the last word should come from Martin Hummel, the man who instigated this recording. In his album notes he concludes;
“I didn’t want the shows to end. And now they will live in perpetuity, as the album captures a moment in time when Eric was anchored in his musical sweet spot while the band, and the audience, hung on and coasted with every note along the blissful, energetic journey. My dream had come true”.
The band have since already returned to the Pizza and to other UK venues but still have a handful of dates left in France in early November, as detailed below;
November 2 – Theatre Vauban, Brest, France
November 3 – Duc des Lombards, Paris, France
November 4 – Duc des Lombards, Paris, France