From the first notes of the opening “Pat ’n’ Chat,” it’s obvious that Friendly Fire is one serious blowing session. Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and altoist Vincent Herring beautifully complement one another as they run though the melody of the Hank Mobley tune, propelled by the driving rhythm section of drummer Carl Allen and bassist John Webber. The saxophonists take scorching solos in turn, and Herring is especially fiery. During pianist Mike LeDonne’s understated solo, Allen masterfully shuffles through a variety of beats on snare and tom, while keeping steady rhythm on cymbals. And all that happens in just the first track of this live set at New York City’s Smoke.
Other performances are similarly ingratiating. The 1963 novelty Japanese hit “Sukiyaki” gets a new lease on life, transformed by a swinging arrangement. Again, Alexander’s and Herring’s styles are complementary, the former burnished and robust, the latter strident and bluesy. Instead of doing battle, they take turns, pushing each other to greater heights with no sense of competition.
Ballads offer the band — and the audience — a chance to catch their breath, but they’re no less enticing. “Mona Lisa” features LeDonne and Alexander in a duo setting, with the rhythm section entering halfway through on the heels of Alexander’s bubbling invitation. Herring wails with abandon on “You’ve Changed,” while Allen’s brushes and LeDonne’s exquisite runs ground the proceedings. Jazz is often best-served in a live setting, where the players can listen and react to one another in real time. This hour-long set certainly makes the case.
— Ross Boissoneau