A band of top line players and a set of tunes that let them loose to express themselves, all with the raw energy of live performance. That’s what you get with the New York All-Stars’ new release on Ubuntu Music, as Rob Adams found out:
Eric Alexander describes The New York All-Stars’ Live Encounter album as “pure joy”, a happy accident that brought the best possible result from a situation that began with disappointment.
The tenor saxophonist had been touring with his long-time collaborator, the great piano veteran Harold Mabern, and their gigs together – exuberant celebrations of the jazz tradition to which Mabern was a giant contributor through his work on classic albums with Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery and Stanley Turrentine, among others – had been perfectly captured on Live Encounter’s predecessor for Ubuntu Music, Burnin’ in London.
When Anderson and Ubuntu’s founding director, Martin Hummel, began planning a second recording last year, it became clear that Mabern, who subsequently died in September this year, wouldn’t be able to take part due to illness.
“We needed to come up with something special,” says Hummel, “And it turned out that Seamus Blake, another fantastic tenor saxophonist, who was living in Paris, was available, and the pianist Mike LeDonne was able to make the tour dates. So, we put Eric and Seamus together for a three-night run at Pizza Express with Mike on piano and Hammond organ, Swedish guitarist Erik Söderlind, Italian bassist Aldo Zunino and Austrian drummer Bernd Reiter – a killer line-up as Live Encounter confirms.”
The album follows in the tradition of great tenor battles that have been a feature of jazz since at least the 1940s. Aficionados will have their favourites – Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Johnny Griffin and Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Michael Brecker and Bob Mintzer and Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh are just a few examples down the years. Eric Alexander has mixed feelings about these head-to-heads.
“They can be exciting, of course, and one player can inspire the other to up his game no end,” he says. “Equally, if one guy feels he’s coming off worse than the other, that’s not so great. Fortunately, with Seamus, the two of us achieved the best outcome, which is competitiveness without animosity. We were up there trying to kill each other but with respect. It’s like boxers, they’re trying to knock each other out for 15 rounds and then they hug at the end.”
The gigs that Blake joined Alexander and the rhythm section were on were especially enjoyable for Alexander because, although he and Blake know and respect each other, they had only ever played together once before and that, says Alexander, was so brief it hardly counts.
“We both happened to be at a George Coleman gig in New York one night a few years ago and George likes to encourage musicians to get up on the bandstand and jam with him,” he says. “So, Seamus and I got up and played a couple of choruses each on some standard or other but I wouldn’t describe it as working together. What I also loved about the Live Encounter dates was, Seamus came into a band that had already played five or six gigs. We had a pool of tunes we’d been playing and he got no say on the set-list, and no rehearsal, except for the sound check, but I knew from the first night we had something special.”
The music on the album comes from the third night of the run, by which time the sextet was motoring and relaxed enough to invite Alexander’s old friend, singer Ian Shaw to join them onstage to sing Lionel Ritchie’s Still, which appears on the album.
“That was great, too, and it just emphasised the good feeling we had,” says Alexander. “The guys in the band are all top line players. Mike has worked with Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson. Mike Stern described Erik as ‘a phenomenon’ and Aldo and Bernd have worked all over Europe at the highest level. As I think the album illustrates, if you put musicians like that together onstage and let them loose on a set of tunes that allow them to express themselves with the real, raw energy of live performance, you get great results. I’m not sure what’s happening next but I’d love to do more with all these guys together.” (pp)