"We've been together so long and we're all such good friends that it really is almost like a family," says Eric Alexander, the group's acclaimed tenor saxophonist. "It's a very high level of communication and comfort that we have going in this band. You can be yourself and know that everybody's got your back. This is one of the few bands like that."
"It's unbelievable that it's hung together for so long," adds pianist David Hazeltine. "And believe me, there are times when it's a pain in the butt that there's no leader in this band. But artistically, that really works to our advantage because everybody's free to say anything and implement anything; nobody has the final word, ever. So in terms of the music, the collective thing really works."
Keepers of the straight-ahead flame, Alexander, Hazeltine and their One For All colleagues - trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist John Webber, drummer Joe Farnsworth - continue to set the bar high on Incorrigible .
The One For All sound is forged in the quintessential '50s-'60s Blue Note vibe, perhaps best exemplified by classic Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers recordings from that golden era.
"We can't escape that Messengers comparison," says trumpeter Rotondi, "nor do we try to." The classic Horace Silver quintet is another obvious reference point here.
That definitive soul-jazz quality can be heard on the jaunty opener, Rotondi's "Back to Back" (bearing a slight resemblance to Silver's "Senor Blues" with its Latin flavored intro) and also on Hazeltine's "Blues for Jose," a slow, earthy meditation that inspires the individual soloists to dig deep.
They conjure a subtle Latin flavor on Hazeltine's "Petite Ange," which is underscored by Webber's authentic tumbao feel on bass and features bristling solos (in order) from Rotondi, Alexander, Davis and Hazeltine.
Their hip, tempo-shifting, cleverly reharmonized arrangement of "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" shows the collective ingenuity of this smart outfit. Davis' infectious shuffle "So Soon" is quintessential Jazz Messengers (a la "Blues March") while Rotondi's poignant ballad "Voice" is a touching tribute to the late, great Freddie Hubbard, performed on flugelhorn with somber, requiem-like harmonies behind him.
Alexander's invigorating title track sails through a myriad of cascading changes, presenting a challenge for the individual soloists (Rotondi, Alexander, Davis, Hazeltine) in the same way that Trane's "Giant Steps" remains a classic proving ground 50 years later.
Davis' modal closer "Spirit Talk" opens with a fusillade from Farnsworth before erupting into a powerful waltz-time swing number that taps into some intense latter day Trane energy (a la "My Favorite Things"). Hazeltine channels his inner McCoy while comping furiously behind Alexander's harmonically probing solo. Farnsworth puts a capper on this exhilarating session with a facile drum solo.
The origins of One For All go back to Auggie's, a jazz club on New York's Upper West Side near the Columbia University campus where drummer Farnsworth held down a regular gig.
Farnsworth recalls, "In the beginning I had Junior Cook and Cecil Payne and the great John Ore on bass. Then after Junior passed away, Eric would come up and play. I had met Eric during my second year (1986) at William Patterson College, shortly after I met Jim Rotondi."
Eventually Farnsworth, Webber, Alexander and Rotondi began playing at Auggie's on a regular basis.
By 1990, trombonist Steve Davis entered the picture. A gifted hard bop trombonist following in the tradition of former Messenger Curtis Fuller, Davis' stint as a Jazz Messenger was short-lived, as Blakey died in October, 1990. "I was right out of college when I joined the band, just 22 years old," he recalls. "My first week was at Sweet Basil right after Christmas, '89. Brian Lynch, Javon Jackson, Essiet Essiet and Geoff Keezer were already in that band. I was the very last one, as it turns out, to walk through that door. It was nine months for me. So I'm the least qualified in the lineage of Jazz Messengers, but I was there."
The final piece of the One For All puzzle was Hazeltine, a seasoned pianist who had apprenticed in his hometown, Milwaukee, with renowned pianist-vibist Buddy Montgomery before moving to New York in the early '80s to work with Jon Hendricks. After returning to Milwaukee in the mid '80's, Hazeltine was back in the Big Apple by the mid '90s working with the likes of Louis Hayes, Slide Hampton and Marlena Shaw.
"We first played with him down at the Zinc Bar," says Farnsworth. "We had been looking for a piano player and after playing with him we immediately knew that he was the one. So we finally had a nucleus of a band." Adds Alexander, "Dave's arranging and compositional style really solidified the sound of the band, I think."
Although they hadn't officially named the band, they began playing together as a complete unit at Auggie's as early as 1995. They first documented their kindred hookup on Steve Davis' sextet outing for the Criss Cross label, Dig Deep (1996). The official band name eventually came from a Steve Davis tune, the title track of Art Blakey's final recording, One For All (1990).
Davis explains, "Five or six years later when we began kicking around band names, Farnsworth suggested we call it One For All, and it just kind of stuck. At that point we decided, 'Yeah, we gotta keep this thing together.'"
Auggie's closed in 1998 and reopened on April 9, 1999 under new ownership as Smoke, which became a home base for One For All. As Webber puts it, "We were playing at Smoke before Smoke was Smoke."
Individually, the members of One For All continue to do sideman gigs while also recording solo projects. Trombonist Davis (who debuted as a leader on JLP last year with Eloquence) currently plays in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Alumni Big Band, Jimmy Heath's big band and Benny Golson's New Jazztet. Saxophonist Alexander works off and on with pianist Harold Mabern and guitarist Pat Martino while also recording prolifically as a leader (he has 27 outings to date on his own name). Bassist Webber is a ubiquitous figure on the New York scene who has performed with the likes of Johnny Griffin, Etta Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Milt Jackson and who continues to work with drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Hank Jones. Drummer Farnsworth works frequently with the Cedar Walton trio and with tenor sax titan Pharoah Sanders. Hazeltine and Rotondi have also worked in a variety of sideman settings while releasing several recordings as leaders.
But inspite of all their frequent sideman activity and solo projects, the members of One For All inevitably return to the fold to rekindle their rare chemistry.
"It's something we all truly enjoy and it's a facet of all our careers that we see as really important," says Alexander. "Because you know there's more to playing this music than just laying out good solos. There's writing and ensemble playing and arranging, and this band is a vehicle for us to really hone those chops by trying to blend and having a cohesive sound."