The crowd was younger than usual at the Nashville Jazz Workshop Friday night. Several college students sat quietly waiting for Alex Graham, alto saxophonist and Belmont University professor, to take the stage.
His first performance at the Jazz Workshop since moving to Nashville a year and a half ago, Graham played it safe with song selection, giving the audience tried-and-true standards like “All the Things You Are” and “Stella by Starlight,” and a few original tunes. Standouts included the first-set closer, “Pig Pig,” an original dedicated to (and named for) Graham’s pug, and a funky original written for the Artist’s Workshop at the W.O. Smith School. Graham has a clear command of melody, and his originals were some of the most exciting pieces of the night.
Joining Graham for this performance were Nashville jazz scene favorites Joe Davidian on piano, Josh Hunt on drums and Mike Rinne on bass. It is hard to imagine a better trio for Graham; each of these players feels equally at ease playing a swing standard as he does playing a contemporary tune. Graham was very thoughtful in who played what solos throughout the night, rarely allowing everyone to solo on a given tune. This decision was effective in avoiding a set that felt repetitive in terms of solos, a real danger for any jazz quartet.
Graham’s solos seemed a bit calculated or cautious during the first set, but he hit his stride in a big way during the second set, showing us solos that were melodic, virtuosic and that showcased his stratospheric range. He had the audience in the palm of his hand during each solo: just when we thought he couldn’t play any higher or hold the note any longer, he would prove us wrong and kept us on the edge of our seats.
It was almost 11 o’clock when the band finished the final number of the night, a burning rendition of “Just in Time,” featuring the best piano and sax solos of the evening. If you missed the performance last weekend, rest easy. According to the hoots and hollers from the crowd, Graham will surely become another staple on the Nashville Jazz Workshop stage.