Now that there are more styles of jazz than Louis Armstrong box sets, it’s necessary for the young (34 — a baby in the jazz world) tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander to define where he fits in the messy genealogical charts of jazz musicians and their influences.
But when asked the question, Alexander pauses and then answers, in his own tough-but-friendly voice, “acoustic, straight-ahead modern jazz.”
For the jazz fan, this is all you need to know to immediately link Alexander to Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillepsie, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and other jazz greats.
“We don’t play what people would consider to be avant-garde or free jazz,” he said. “But it’s not Dixieland either. We play with a traditional quartet instrumentation — always piano, bass and drums.”
But it’s Alexander’s saxophone playing, which has earned him recognition by The New York Times as part of “the bricks-and-mortar of New York’s straight ahead jazz mainstream,” that Asheville jazz fans will be looking for when the performer, recently hailed by Jazz Week as its Artist of the Year, pays a visit to this city on Dec. 7 as the guest of the Western North Carolina Jazz Society.
Alexander’s visit is spurred by a growing local interest in jazz. Jazz Society founder/president Bo Farson moved to Asheville several years ago after a career as a school administrator in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Dissatisfied with the scarcity of live jazz hereabouts but encouraged by the town’s openness to the arts, Farson decided to start the subscription-based society last spring to see if local interest warranted such a group.
“What we’re doing is modeling a jazz society I belonged to in Mount Vernon,” he explained. “We’re dedicated to bringing jazz [to Asheville] at the most affordable price.”
Dedicated to “straight-ahead” jazz, the WNC Jazz Society (www.wncjazzsociety.org) has 200 dues-paying members and has already staged three early-evening Sunday concerts — beginning with The Evans and Coppola Quintet in September — and selling hundreds of tickets for each performance. In Alexander, noted Farson, the group is getting a phenomenal musician.
“When I saw him last summer, my friends and I were completely enraptured by what he played,” Farson recalled. “His music just has a tremendous power, and it swings. He has brilliant chops but plays with tremendous passion at the same time.”
Significantly younger than many of his fans and fellow musicians, Alexander is known for reaching out to older musicians — which he said he does not out of generosity, but respect.
“The music is not the kind of thing that you lose with your health,” noted Alexander. “You actually become a better player. You’re really able to hone your craft and find purer ways to express what you’re going to do.”
Working in a style that has been out of style since the free jazz of the 1960s took hold, Alexander said it was difficult for students in the younger generation to get acquainted with the music, because so many older musicians have passed away. At the same time, he pointed out, jazz education programs have helped retain interest in a music that’s losing popularity.
Alexander will be joined by Washington, D.C.-based bassist Herman Burney, Clay Hulet of Atlanta,on drums, and Asheville’s own Tom Coppola on piano. Alexander said he’s played with Burney before, but will be performing with Hulet and Coppola for the first time. And while the band will practice some, Alexander said one of the advantages of straight-ahead jazz, where most of the music comes from a universal repertoire, is that new bands don’t need a lot of preparation in order to make great music.
“That’s one of the things that makes jazz special music,” he said. “You don’t need rehearsal as long as you’re coming from the same place. You can find common ground and make good music spontaneously.”
And while Farson admits that Alexander is a bit out of the fledgling society’s price range, the group had the distinct advantage of having Alexander’s mother — who moved to Asheville a year ago — as a member. For his part, Alexander said he’s looking forward to seeing her in her new home for the first time.
Eric Alexander performs at the Unitarian Universalist Church (1 Edwin Place, off Charlotte Street) on Sunday, Dec. 7. Showtime is 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 5:15); admission is $10 for WNC Jazz Society members, $15 for nonmembers. For more information, call (828) 687-040, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.