Cecil Alexander – 5 Desert Island Album Picks

Regardless if you’re a beginning student of Jazz Guitar or an established player, we all have at least five albums that we cannot be without! With that said, Jazz Guitar Life has asked Jazz Guitarist Cecil Alexander what his five would be (assuming that he knew before hand that he was going to be stuck on a desert island and that said island had electricity and a full component stereo system) 🙂

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1) Talkin About – Grant Green: Grant Green is my guitar hero! His tone, touch, rhythmic feel, and phrasing are unmatched in my opinion. There’s such a well-focused intensity to his phrases that catches your attention. Hearing him any context is awe-inspiring, but on this date, Elvin and Larry Young drive him to new heights. Grant gets deep into his rhythmic bag whenever he plays with these two; Especially on the solos on “Talkin’ About J.C,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “Luny Tune” he plays some amazing looping rhythmic figures that Elvin and Larry support beautifully. Every solo on this album is melodic, sing-able, concise, and the group interplay allows for so much tension and release- each song has a definite arc. Grant also has a lot to say in his interpretation of the melody on “People” – his phrasing sounds so much like a vocalist. He’s the king!

2) Live in Seattle – John Coltrane: Coltrane is quite possibly my favorite musician (and I love everything he recorded) so it was hard to narrow my choice down to one album, but there’s a really special vibe on this recording that makes me feel like I’m in the room when I listen to it. This album features Coltrane’s classic quartet, augmented by the colossal duo of Pharoah Sanders and Donald Garrett. I don’t know how else to describe the music on this album besides “harmonically complex folk music.” The group goes very far “out,” but still retains the blues aesthetic, which still makes it accessible. My favorite moment on this recording is McCoy’s solo on “Out of This World,” where at the peak, he launches into a really dense “shout chorus” idea and Elvin and Jimmy Garrison play some amazing contrapuntal ideas underneath. The contrast between Trane and Pharoah sounds like two people having a conversation. This is one of my favorite groups of all time, because when they get a motif happening as a unit, it feels like the Earth is opening up. 

3) Four – Joe Henderson with the Wynton Kelly Trio: This album was my introduction to Joe Henderson, who is one of my favorite tenor players of all time. His rhythmic approach has been really influential on me, particularly the way he can switch between a tight swing and a straighter feel. He also has an amazing way of slipping in and out of the time that gives his phrases so much forward motion. Transcribing just one of Joe’s solos on this album would give someone enough material to work on for a lifetime: there’s so much nuance to his phrases, and he keeps every chorus full of surprises. Wynton Kelly supports Joe’s phrases beautifully, and plays some wonderfully swinging solos of his own. This trio happens to be one of my favorite rhythm sections: If there was an album where each track was just Jimmy Cobb’s ride cymbal beat isolated, that would probably end up on this list too! There’s such a strong, swinging feel that keeps the energy level high every track. The audience interaction also makes this such a fun listen. People are cheering the soloists on: recognizing the quotes in their solos and encouraging them to play louder, faster, higher, etc.. There’s not a single moment where every member isn’t giving 150%. 

4) The Prisoner – Herbie Hancock: Herbie is one of my favorite pianists, and also one of my favorite composers. The writing on this album has been a huge inspiration, because Herbie did such a great job of writing in a way that highlights the voice of each musician. There’s also so many interesting harmonic colors and orchestration choices that sound like nothing I’ve heard before. It’s also amazing how fluently the musicians play these forms, they make every tune sound so organic and flowing, even though there are so many complex rhythm and harmonic concepts happening. They all sound so fearless, especially Herbie, Johnny Coles and Joe Henderson- who takes a very inspired solo on the alternate take of the title track. Another quality that I admire in Herbie’s composing (that really shines on this album) is that he always returns to a strong groove no matter how “out” things get, which keeps the music accessible and allows for repeated listens. Also note the very underrated hookup between Buster Williams and Albert “Tootie” Heath: very swinging but elastic like a rubber band! There’s breath in every beat!

5) Four and More – Miles Davis: In addition to being one of the greatest trumpet players in the history of this music, Miles Davis also assembled the groups that are still considered the model for small group playing. This album features what might be my favorite of those groups. I think that this period with George Coleman (the pre- “Second Great Quintet”) is a bit underrated; which is unfortunate considering that George Coleman is one of the giants of this music and one of the first unique “Post-Trane” tenor players. He threads beautiful melodic ideas through the changes and generates hip substitute progressions on the fly. Miles plays some great solos on “So What” and “Joshua” that are full of rhythmic interest and his own unique approach to chromatic language. Herbie takes a beautiful solo on “There Is No Greater Love,” and in his second chorus, creates a rift in the space-time continuum with his command of various symmetrical scales. Additionally, the way that the rhythm section functions is almost telepathic: because they’re such skilled listeners and accompanists, they can accurately anticipate where soloists are going, and respond without “parroting” phrases. You can hear how carefully George, Herbie, Ron and Tony have studied past Miles Davis sideman; qualities of Trane, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Philly Joe Jones are all present. I notice new details every time I listen to this album.

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