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Sax player Eric Allison, looking casual yet distinguished in a black jacket, a light-gray collarless shirt with the top button opened, and dark gray slacks, is in a good mood. Heading toward an outdoor table for a pre-gig meal at Sterling Worth Cafe in Plantation, where he is scheduled to accompany the wife-and-husband vocal-guitar duo Davis & Dow, Allison stops to compliment a friend on her new hairdo, sprinkling his praise with a few well-placed laughs.
The laughter of Miami Shores resident Allison, it turns out, is genuine. His staccato chuckle results not from nervousness or a desire to fill conversational space but rather from a joyous life. A man who describes his childhood as "ideal" and who understands the advantages of being something of a recording newcomer at age 46, Allison demonstrates a natural exuberance in both his demeanor and his music.
After Hours, his second release for the Contemporary imprint and his third overall, is a concept album based on Erskine Hawkins' classic title blues tune. It also includes nine of Allison's own similarly spirited compositions -- among them "Midnight Groove," "Double Shot," "No Cover," "Sittin' In," and "Straight Up." The album's unifying theme -- the smoky excitement of a jazz club -- was suggested by Bob Weinstock, the record's producer. Allison, who plays clarinet and flute in addition to tenor and alto saxophones, recruited South Florida jazz luminaries organist-pianist Dr. Lonnie Smith, sax player Turk Mauro, and drummer Danny Burger to participate in the project.
"I'm a club rat," explains Allison. "I love playing in nightclubs more than any other venue. There's nothing like midnight on a Saturday night with a club packed, the band smokin', and the people groovin' -- it's the greatest feeling in the world. You just don't get the same feeling when you play concerts, even if it's for thousands of people, because there's a hundred feet between you and the audience. You don't have the intimacy of having people two or three feet in front of you."
In many ways Allison's jaunty, unbridled playing style is a perfect reflection of his warm personality. His blowing contains little of the melancholy of Miles Davis, the spiritual searching of John Coltrane, or the manic, often drug-fueled rampaging that Charlie Parker, his idol, transformed into musical majesty. Allison's playing is informed and, in contrast to many of the great jazz masters, carefree. His musical statements command authority and respect, but their message is uplifting, optimistic, and accessible. Primed by Allison's merry mood, After Hours steams with the bacchanalian air of the pleasure seeker.
The album was recorded in two five-hour sessions in July 1997 at Saturn Sound Studios in West Palm Beach, with many of the ten tracks captured on the first take. While Allison jokes that the record's mood was created by "everyone smoking three packs of cigarettes and blowing smoke in the studio," the real credit belongs to the professionalism and talent of the saxophonist himself and his collaborators.
"All the guys on the CD were so good, if I had said I wanted this to be like [Fort Lauderdale club] O'Hara's at one in the morning on Saturday, then they could do it," Allison notes. "As it happened, they did it anyway, just without the talking in the background. The guys were businesslike only in the sense that they're so professional they take care of business, but otherwise it was very loose. There was a lot of fooling around, but not to the detriment of the session. Dennis Marks [bass] and John Bailey [trumpet] both had to leave the next day, so everyone knew that this was it -- we had to do it right the first time."
Smith credits the sessions' ease to Allison's abilities as both player and leader. "Lots of fellas waste time in the studio, but Eric got right down to business," says Smith. "You have to be a great sideman to be a great leader. You have to know how to play with people. When I play with George Benson, I know I have to support him, without destroying the feeling of his song or pushing my own thing. Eric can do that, and he's a versatile musician. He puts lots of colors and tastes into the things he plays -- gives songs just the right texture."
The CD has a particularly bluesy feel, a characteristic that permeates Allison's playing. This quality stems from a combination of a jazz-blues connection that the sax player believes is inherent in the music, plus the blues orientation of his partners. "The tunes were written specifically for this CD, and many of them were blues-based but particularly the ones with Lonnie," Allison points out between bites of a Greek salad. "He's just drenched, steeped in the blues. I've never loved playing blues with anyone as much as with Lonnie. Sometimes when we're at O'Hara's, we'll be playing a blues, and I practically have to pull the horn out of my mouth. It makes you feel like you can just blow forever.
"If you don't have a foundation in the blues as a jazz player, then you ain't a jazz player. Jazz is based on blues; it all comes from blues. Charlie Parker, the most advanced musician of all time, was based in the blues. He grew up in Kansas City and was around that music all the time. You can hear it even in the complex stuff he plays."