It may seem like a bold statement for me to declare that Eric Person is probably one of the greatest alto & soprano saxophonists working today, especially since I must admit that I haven't heard every alto and soprano saxophonist working today, but I stand by the statement nonetheless. This is not a statement that I make lightly, nor is it a conclusion that I came to from listening to just one or two of Person’s albums. I have purchased his CDs and followed his development for many years now, and every time I pull one of them off the shelf for a revisit his music always manages to sound fresh and new to my ears.
Unfortunately, Person is far from a household name in jazz, and so it’s quite possible you have yet to hear any of this great music that I’m referring to. But there’s no better cure for that than his new ‘best of’ release, Reflections. This CD contains nine tracks from albums recorded between 1993 and 2003, as well as three previously unreleased live tracks recorded at New York’s Knitting Factory in 1998.
The first thing I noticed about this new album is that the songs are not sequenced in chronological order, as is often the case on ‘best of’ releases. Chronological sequencing usually serves as a convenient roadmap, making it easy to follow an artist’s development over a specific period of time. However, amazingly enough, if you didn’t already know that this was a compilation or that these songs spanned a 10-year period, you’d have a hard time guessing it by simply listening to the CD. That may sound as though I’m saying that Person has not developed much as a musician over that stretch of time, but it’s actually quite the contrary. There are definite signs of strong growth and change, it’s just that he was so good 10 years ago and his style is so much his own that some of the changes are very subtle. The bottom line is that Person, as both a saxophonist and a composer, creates music that is the epitome of the word "timeless". Everything he plays has a vibrancy and urgency to it and is heavily stamped with his personal (no pun intended) signature. The way he constructs songs is as unique as the way he navigates the horn. I hear a lot of early Wayne Shorter and Steve Lacy in his playing, but also some Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, all players that have continually managed to keep one foot in the past, honoring tradition, while at the same time forging ahead as innovators.
As you might imagine, there are a great number of musicians that have recorded with Person over this 10-year period, and normally I wouldn’t bother to note such a long list, but they are all so excellent and contribute so much to these recordings that I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge them. The nine previously released tracks include Cary Denigris on guitar, Jim Finn on flute, Mike Cain and John Esposito on keyboards, Kenny Davis, Dave Holland, Carlos Henderson and Calvin Jones on bass, and Gene Jackson, E.J. Strickland, Peter O’Brien and Ronnie Burrage on drums. The three previously unreleased tracks featured Dave Douglas on trumpet, John Esposito on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Mark Johnson on drums. All but two of the songs were composed by Person, with one contribution each from Davis and Esposito.
One sure sign of a great jazz band leader is his ability to create a cohesive and recognizable sound regardless of how often the personnel in the band changes. Miles had it, Trane had it, and this album is overwhelming evidence that Person has it, as well. He also has the rare (based on the albums of many of his contemporaries that I’ve listened to lately) gift of being able to play post-bop, modern jazz that is both cutting edge and completely accessible to the everyday jazz fan. There’s a lot of great experimentation going on in modern jazz today, but much of it requires a lot of effort to understand and enjoy. Person has managed to avoid that pitfall. His music is deceptively simple and melodic. For example, I was once listening to a track that I had listened to many times before and realized for the first time that not only was it in odd meter, but that the meter continually changed throughout the song - 4/4, 7/4, 11/4, etc. To play such difficult music and make it sound so easy is no small task.If you’ve never heard Eric Person, I urge you to get him in your ears. Some of his older albums are difficult to find, but I think that once you take a listen to this ‘best of’, you’ll be hungry for more, and that any effort you might have to expend to acquire some of the older stuff will prove very rewarding, indeed.