Alex Harding (1967; Detroit, MI) and Pepper Adams (1930-1986) hailed from the same geographical area and, while we were recording Alex’s leadership debut (CIMP 246), he mentioned a fondness for Pepper’s playing. Other than that, plus an assured facility and dexterity, Alex sounds little like Pepper, and even less like the other baritone sax icons. Which is of course as it should be since Alex is Alex, not Pepper or Gerry or Leo or Harry or Serge, and so on.
Around the time I first encountered Alex (January 1999) as part of Ahmed Abdullah’s group NAM (CIMP 192), Dominic Duval (1944; NYC, NY) spoke to me of his great admiration for Pepper Adams’ music, which resulted in a general discussion about bari players, and I told him how impressed I had been by Alex. Eventually, Alex and Dominic and Jay Rosen (1961; Philadelphia, PA) connected and Dominic called me, singing Alex’s praises. Exactly how this date finally materialized, I don’t really remember, destiny, I guess.
The trio arrived in the early afternoon and soon Dominic and Alex began jamming and working out musical strategies while Jay put fresh heads on, and tuned, the entire drum kit. Listening to their driving and energized jam, I thought, this is going to be an easy production. The risk in that thinking is allowing the ease and momentum of the music to replace challenge and mask lack of substance. I mentioned some of these thoughts to Alex who responded by saying he “likes to let things grow organically.” I pointed out to him that that’s fine as long as you get substance: flowers, not weeds. To which he replied, “Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” And I responded, “You’re right, Alex.” We laughed.
This is the third time I’ve worked with Alex and each time he has not only brought with him an infectious enthusiasm but also a visceral dynamic that initiates the music at a higher level. Electrifying is a word that often comes to mind in hearing Alex. Dominic, a co-music director, is as unequivocal in his bass directions as Alex is in his baritone stance. Jay is both dynamic and intuitive, often simultaneously supporting, in this case, two masters.
The trio opened with Invocation, which is exactly that—a creative statement of reverence to the spirit of Pepper Adams and the music in general. After that, it was a journey into Jazz and some of its outstanding literature. The goal for me, and I counseled the trio toward that end, was to fit war-horses with new saddles, or put another way, to deal with the tradition rather than letting the tradition deal with you.
Addressing oneself to this concept requires not just technical skills, it also requires an attitude. How inventive is this little band? Well, consider all this: All the approaches/arrangements to these familiar compositions were conceived on the spot, no contracted arrangers, no copyists, just 3 inventive creative artists inventing dynamically on themes. The only printed music consisted of basic sheets out of fake books. Transcribe some of the performances in this concert, present it as precomposed, and you’ll look gifted.
This was an invigorating two days: little angst, plenty of laughter, even some standup comic routines. And they drew things to a close with Alex’s Goodbye. Yes, in many ways this was an easy production. All I had to do was get out of their way. As for what they left in their wake, you can judge for yourself. I’d call it exceptional.
Robert D. Rusch - June 7, 2002