Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander is to hard bop what James Lee Burke (of the Dave Robicheaux series) is to crime fiction: someone whose art and craft masterfully expands the mainstream of a well-established genre from the inside out. Alexander courses through phrases with a brawny, galvanized tone and palpable sense of forward thrust. Only after the listener is accustomed to that initial impact does the saxophonist’s command of rhythm (the split-second pauses, and well-placed dips and rises) and abiding sense of song become manifest. Don’t Follow the Crowd is another brick in the firmament of Alexander’s near-impregnable discography. The three sidemen all know him well, from his former teacher and fellow traveler in saucy, hard-bop blues (Memphis pianist Harold Mabern) to his drummer for decades now (Joe Farnsworth) to steady “newcomer” Nat Reeves on bass, who has graced Alexander discs for the past three years. They play an assortment of ballads and burners, originals and covers both classic (Henry Mancini’s “Charade”) and out-of-context (the closing “Cavatina” from the Deer Hunter soundtrack).
As always with Alexander, style and substance are inextricable, and the quality control is unimpeachable. The ballads are heartfelt but dry-eyed, the burners ablaze but devoid of bluster. For years now, critics have spoken about Alexander’s ongoing improvement. And while it’s true that his dedication has bolstered his songwriting and heightened his horn work, the increments are minimal. More likely, the critics have stumbled into his world and need to justify their past inattention, or, more likely, once again feel the need to praise the same ol’ same ol’ to stir new converts. Meanwhile, the same ol’ same ol’ in the form of Don’t Follow the Crowd will satisfy like a cold beer on a hot day. And when you’ve finished it, remember that he’s stocked the fridge with two or three more.