Tenor of the Times

Saxman Eric Allison and band titan up in tribute to the Big Three

Bean, Ben, and Prez. It's almost a mantra for anyone who loves tenor sax (that is, tenor sax before 'Trane, Newk, and 'Nette bent the horn around new dimensions). Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young. The tenor trinity's impact is so deeply felt it's almost impossible to trace a player from Byas to Bird to Braxton who hasn't been influenced by it in one way or another. Count among them long-time South Florida saxman Eric Allison, who, along with an all-star local lineup, will be honoring the trio of Tenor Titans at the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale tonight (Thursday).

"My goal is not to re-create these three great players' solos note for note," says Allison on the patio at Bruzzi restaurant, where he plays a "dinner-thing" with the Marv Gordon Trio Wednesday through Saturday. "I'll sure be playing their favorite licks and phrases, but the solos will be my own improvisations."

And a daunting task it is, Allison allows, even though he's been listening to the Big Three nearly all his life. Growing up in Indiana and later Sarasota, Allison and his older brother were subjected to hours of their old man's jazz 78s and LPs. "We would be looking at each other, going, 'What is this shit?' But finally the bug bit me and I started playing saxophone in seventh grade and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Most kids at that point would have bought John Coltrane and Miles Davis and maybe Ornette Coleman, what was happening at the time. Instead, I wanted to know where all these big bands and Dixieland came from." The vinyl trail led Allison to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, and of course, the big bands featuring Bean, Ben, and Lester: Fletcher Henderson's, Duke Ellington's, and Count Basie's, respectively.

Allison's ear was twisted to the newer sounds when he went off to study at Northwestern and met up with private teacher Joe Daily. "My first lesson there, he said, 'Play me something.' And I probably played 'Girl from Ipanema.' The guy said [sardonically], 'Nobody plays like that any more!' And he was the guy that turned me on to Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt and really turned my head around about the modern players."

Although the tenor man went through his Coltrane period and his fusion period, he always came back to the sweetness and sublime musicality of jazz's Golden Age. "Ultimately, I love melodies and I love the songs Gershwin wrote and Duke Ellington and Cole Porter and Jerome Kerns. And even in my improvisations now, I seem to try to think of melodies instead of just running patterns and playing hot licks. That's what excites me the most: trying to create another melody on these beautiful chord changes this composer wrote."

One of the pieces in the tribute show Allison expresses enthusiasm about is Coleman Hawkins's 1939 signature tune, "Body and Soul." Vocalist Brenda Alford, a South Florida newcomer, will be singing Eddie Jefferson's lyrics, written specifically to fit Hawkins's original solo in the great vocalese tradition. Meanwhile, Allison will be playing his own improvised chorus in the style of the Hawk. "So then I don't have to compare myself to the original solo," he laughs, sloughing off the prospect of equalling Bean's high-water mark for jazz balladry.

After woodshedding with longtime friend and fan Jack Sohmer of downbeat magazine (and his formidable record collection), Allison is ready to tackle the top tenors, using their own indelible phrasing and expression as a creative touchstone. There'll be plenty of breathy romanticism, ballads being the hallmark of Bean and Ben, the latter an avowed follower of the elder Hawkins.

The idiosyncratic Lester Young, says Allison, perhaps presents the greatest challenge. A direct link to bop (listen to early Bird) and the later cool school, Lester's emotionalism was more complex, less dependent on vibrato and those gulping breaths or wet reed sounds employed by both the other men. "Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster had that big sound that was wringing every drop of emotion out of every note," notes Allison. "Prez was more concerned with the overall landscape of things. With his light sound and swinging phrasing, he was certainly very emotional, just in a different way." A listen to some of the classic sides recorded with Billie Holiday (many of which will be featured with Alford) puts an exclamation point on that statement.

Another misconception Allison is quick to clear up is that Lester Young's post-World War II output is all but worthless. An individual to the extreme A with his porkpie hat, hep lingo, and a style that filtered all the way down to how he smoked a butt A the sensitive musician was just about ruined by his stint in the army. "I've heard some records of Lester Young that should have never been released," says Allison. "On the other hand, get yourself a copy of Count Basie at Newport [1957], when they bring Jo Jones and Lester back to the bandstand. I'm getting goosebumps right now, just thinking of his solo on 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams.'" The saxman proffers his arm as proof. Bumps. "And then they let loose a new version of 'Lester Leaps In' where he just blows his brains out. I defy anybody to listen to that and say Lester Young is washed up. There was no question he could still play great when he wanted to."

Allison will bring his passion for these jazz giants, as well as his knowledge and anecdotes about the Tenor Titans, to the Riverside show. He'll also be bringing a crack musical team consisting of vocalist Alford, trumpeter John Bailey, bassman Lew Berryman, guitarist Simon Salz, drummer Lenny Steinberg, and pianist pal Jack Keller, with whom he recorded the excellent 1985 release Live at Ziegfeld's (look for it to be released on CD in the near future, and buy it immediately).

But for now, it's back to the business at hand, as drummer Marv Gordon and keyboardist Ed Cerveny come out to look for the third side of their triangle. Allison excuses himself, slips on his blue blazer, props himself on his stool, and prepares to fade into the mix of tinkling dinnerware, the chatter of elderly matrons, and a table of young girls slurping pasta. Still, it's a good gig, steady work (though recently cut from six nights to four for postseason).

After two decades on the SoFla jazz scene, playing Ronnie's Lounge with pianist and partner Billy Marcus, and the vital Airliner in the days when they'd draw a Horace Silver or Roland Kirk or Cleanhead Vinson, Allison still appears to love what he's doing, going all out on promotion for a show he deeply believes in. Says Allison, "It doesn't matter if you have Count Basie coming back from the grave if nobody knows about it."

The Tenor Titans tribute takes place at 8:00 tonight (Thursday) at the Riverside Hotel, 620 E Las Olas Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 524-0805. Tickets are $15.

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