Introducing Cecil Alexander: “Haven’t We Met Before?”

“Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Jimi Hendrix, George Benson, Pat Martino, Albert King, B.B. King, and Charlie Christian are integral to the way I approach this music. There are countless recordings by them that I can sing forwards and backwards, and I think that has impacted the way I compose, play, and accompany…”

Cecil Alexander

In his second interview for Jazz Guitar Life – conducted by Dr. Wayne Goins – Jazz Guitarist Cecil Alexander discusses his upcoming debut album for Kurt Rosenwinkle’s Heartcore Records; talks about his custom Super 400 by Luthier Alexander Polyakov; and reveals who may just well be his favorite guitar player.

If you’d like to learn more about Cecil, please check out his first interview for Jazz Guitar Life alongside his 5 Desert Island Album Picks feature. Enjoy 🙂

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JGL: Tell me all about the label and the new deal you made for this exciting new album.

CA: The label is Heartcore Records, founded by Kurt Rosenwinkel, one of my favorite living musicians. They’re based in Berlin, and we’ve been in contact since February of this year, trying to get together logistics and details for this record.

JGL: What’s the name of the LP?

CA: The album is titled Introducing Cecil Alexander. We figured it would be a fitting title given this is both my debut record and my first on the label.

JGL: Was there anything or anyone in particular that instigated this new partnership?

CA: Kurt reached out to me and suggested we put something together, which was both a tremendous honor and surprise. He’s been a massive inspiration to me since I started studying Jazz over ten years ago.

JGL: What was your overarching concept for this project? How did you go about selecting material for it?

CA: I wanted to pay tribute to my late father, Cecil Alexander Sr. who passed away in 2019. So most of the songs are dedicated to him, as well as my wife, mother, and sister, who have all been very supportive and influential on my development, direction, and drive as a musician. I selected tunes and wrote material that I felt was both reflective of their musical taste and their character.

JGL: Are you still doing work with your wife Ari, and is she involved with the new album or the label?

CA: Yes, we still write and play together regularly! She’s not on the new record, but we have a project together called Visen, as well as Jazz duo project we’re working on, playing standards and originals in the style of the Great American Songbook.

JGL: Back in December 2021 when you interviewed with our JGL editor Lyle Robinson, you stated that maybe you would include a Bobby Womack cover—did you do that?

CA: I ended up going with a different cover but in a similar vein: “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway. I initially wanted to do “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” by Bobby Womack, or “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” but arranging them for the organ trio setting proved to be quite the challenge. Maybe I’ll give it another shot on the next record! R&B and Soul from the 70’s and 80’s has been very influential on me and I’d say a lot of those artists (Bobby Womack, Teddy Pendergrass, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye) have shaped the way I hear melodically and harmonically.

JGL: How is your recent position as Assistant Professor at Berklee College of Music going?

CA: It’s been great so far! I have a lot of very talented students that keep me inspired, and hip me to a lot of new music that I might be out of touch with. I’m also very fortunate to be surrounded by so many talented faculty members, some of whom were my teachers when I was a student at Berklee.

JGL: Sheryl Bailey is a good friend and next-door neighbor of mine back in the days of Boston when we lived over on Peterboro Street behind Fenway Park! What’s your relationship with her serving as Chair of the guitar department?

CA: Sheryl is one of my favorite players around right now! Her approach and sound conception totally resonate with me, and I know we share a lot of the same favorite guitarists. She’s also such a kind person and we could chat it up for hours!

JGL: Your influences run parallel to mine—during any given solo, I’m just as liable to throw in a B.B. King lick mixed with Prince, Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and Albert King with octaves from Wes Montgomery—thoughts?

CA: It’s all music to me. B.B. King and Albert King were two of my first big guitar influences, and they have as much to do with the way I play and hear music as Grant Green and George Benson. I think it’s important to learn to recognize and appreciate great guitarists of all “genres,” as they can all impact your approach for the better.

JGL: Your “all-time favorite” lists of guitarists are almost identical to mine—how do they infiltrate the material on this new album?

CA: Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Jimi Hendrix, George Benson, Pat Martino, Albert King, B.B. King, and Charlie Christian are integral to the way I approach this music. There are countless recordings by them that I can sing forwards and backwards, and I think that has impacted the way I compose, play, and accompany. A major model for this album was Grant Green’s “Talkin’ About” featuring Elvin Jones and Larry Young – that record was so important for me, and Grant is quite possibly my favorite guitarist. I had such an emotional reaction to that record the first time I heard it because I could hear how much those musicians loved playing music/loved playing with each other. So I hope that listeners can hear how much love went into the making of this record.

JGL: Does one of your missions include the desire or need to want to leave a storied recorded legacy like your heroes?

CA: I’d like to record a lot and be able to document different periods of my playing, but a legacy isn’t really a concern of mine. If people like what I do, that’s great, but I make music to pay homage to my heroes, and that means making music indicative of the present, not the future.

JGL: Which guitars and amps did you use for your recording?

CA: I used an L5 style guitar made by Alexander Polyakov. I found the guitar on Reverb a few years back and it was exactly what I wanted in an archtop. He recently finished a Super 400 style guitar for me that’s going to get a lot of playing time. I used that straight into a Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb, one of my favorite amps.

JGL: What makes them so different and special to you? what separates them from other choices you might have made?

CA: This particular L5-style has a specific voice that is reminiscent of the very direct, fat tone that guitarists like Melvin Sparks and Grant Green were able to get. Since they were major influences on my playing and compositions on this record, I felt the guitar would be consistent with what I was hearing in my head. I had a lot of other guitars at the time we recorded, but the L5 felt very inspiring to play the material on.

JGL: You talked about the thick neck profile on the super 400 custom-made guitar—did you use that on this album?

CA: Not this time! I didn’t receive that guitar in time to use it on the record. The Super 400 has been a dream guitar of mine for while, so having Alexander build me one with my specs (thicker neck, shorter scale, flatter radius) resulted in a very inspiring instrument. (ed. note: A Jazz Guitar Beauty feature will be published with more pics and detailed info soon)

JGL: Your original band was scrapped due to pandemic—can you discuss a bit about the organ trio setting you like to play in?

CA: I initially planned on doing a larger ensemble record- 2 or 3 horns plus guitar, piano, bass, and drums, but as I was getting record for the record date I started to hear some of the tunes in a more stripped down format. The organ trio is a setting near and dear to my heart, as some my favorite records are by Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Grant Green, so that was ultimately a reference point in the composition period.

JGL: Are you comfortable doing solo work?

CA: I would say I am, since I mainly practice solo. I didn’t include any solo guitar on this record because I wasn’t hearing that in preparation for the session— It’s a very intimate setting and allows for a lot of different colors, some of which I felt might detract from the repertoire.

JGL: What else is in your “vault” to come out next on the new label?

CA: Nothing in the vault currently, but I’m hoping to do a larger ensemble project more focused on composition, with some varied instrumentation- Flute, Vibraphone, Tenor + trumpet, etc…

JGL: Any plans on touring to support the new album?

CA: Yes! This fall and next summer I’m trying to get put some dates together.

JGL: Are you using your regular band members on the album and tour?

CA: Yes, the organist and drummer (Will Gorman and Steven Crammer) are two musicians I met during my time at William Paterson University. I was finishing my Masters degree while Will and Steven were finishing their Bachelor’s, and we got the chance to play together in various configurations. They are two very special musicians who are attentive and sensitive to what a song/project calls for.

JGL: Thank you so much for sharing your time with our JGL readers.

CA: You’re welcome, Wayne—thanks for the opportunity.

Ed. note: Cecil’s debut album on Heartcore Records will be available on September 23, 2022

A taste of what’s to come 🙂

Please consider spreading the word about Cecil and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

If you would like to support all the work I do on Jazz Guitar Life, please consider buying me a coffee or visiting the Jazz Guitar Life sponsors. Thank you and your patronage is greatly appreciated regardless if you buy me a coffee or not 🙂

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