Mike LeDonne and Eric Alexander assembled a crack squad of jazz stars with shared history and stellar chops.
Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander understands the challenges facing an elite ensemble like The Heavy Hitters, whose eponymous debut album
was released on the Cellar Music label in January.
“An all-star band is usually a disaster, because you’ve got competing egos with different musical sensibilities,” he says. “It can be even worse than a non-all-star band. But in this case, we have the same musical aesthetic and everyone can be themselves, so everything gels.”
Pianist and Heavy Hitters’ co-leader Mike LeDonne concurs. “I just love all these guys,” he says, referencing Alexander, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington. “When we sit down to play, it’s like my family — like breaking bread.”
Connections between the musicians are deeply rooted. LeDonne, who’s backed up Benny Golson and Milt Jackson as well as fronting his own projects, met Alexander in the early 1990s; they paired on a string of albums for the Savant label and also helm The Groover Quartet, an organ-tenor combo that dates back to the early 2000s. LeDonne remembers being introduced to drummer Kenny Washington by pianist Hank Jones during the 1980s; he summarizes their closeness by noting, “I was best man at his wedding, and he was best man at my wedding.” And he’s collaborated and gigged with the other members for decades. “To me, Jeremy is a young guy on the scene,” LeDonne maintains, “but I’ve probably known him for 20 years.”
Alexander, known for his work with Harold Mabern and a 30-year discography of his own, came up with the idea of bringing these talents together under The Heavy Hitters banner, with a focus on saluting jazz greats — especially those on Blue Note — who’d influenced them. But rather than covering classic tunes, he wanted the combo to deliver originals that tipped a hat to various inspirations while still retaining their own DNA. “That was Eric’s one stipulation,” LeDonne confirms. “We were going to write all of it.”
Still, Alexander is deferential when discussing “This Is Something New,” an upbeat blowing session based on a chord progression shared with him by veteran saxophonist George Coleman. “I can hardly take credit for that,” he insists. “I only did it because George told me to.” And he’s quick to acknowledge the contributions of his son Andre to “Big Richard,” a tender homage to his late father.
“I was playing a piano in Mexico right after he died, going back and forth between crying and appreciating him, and my kids were lying on the floor next to me,” Alexander says. “At a few points, Andre would shout out, ‘That doesn’t sound right,’ so he kind of changed the chords. He’s very intuitive.”
For his part, LeDonne penned numbers that nod to pianists Horace Silver (“Silverdust,” marked by the slinkiest of grooves) and Cedar Walton (the sprightly “Cedar Land”), plus trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (the exuberant “Hub”). But in none of these cases did he know in advance who the songs would evoke. “It’s weird how those things happened,” he concedes. “Maybe it’s channelling, but it’s more of an afterthought — like, ‘Where did that come from?’”
To capture these creations, the players headed to New Jersey’s historic Van Gelder Studio, where some of the greatest jazz sides were recorded. “The spirits are in that place,” LeDonne says.
“It’s actually frightening how good it sounds in that room,” Alexander agrees. “All you have to do is play well.”
That was no problem for The Heavy Hitters, whose moniker works on multiple levels. “Mike said, ‘If we use that name, maybe people will think we’re being cocky,’” Alexander recalls. “And I said, ‘If we need an out, we can say, ‘Screw off. The heavy hitters are Freddie Hubbard and Horace Silver and Cedar Walton.’”
Fortunately, there’s more than enough heaviness to go around. - Michael Roberts
Featured photo by Cellar Music Group.