“For the most part, when I play music, I smell it and see colors. Every song has its own personality, its own soul, and if I can’t feel it, I can’t play it with feeling. I don’t understand what it is that makes me different, but I feel I have very little in common with anybody else. I seem to be my own strange character. If I’m right in my motivations and attitude, amazing things happen.”—Monty Alexander, 2010
“I love Jamaica. I love America. I love them both together more than each one separately. I inhabit the rhythmic aspect of both things. I can’t explain why. I do it naturally and joyfully. I am confident and proud and privileged to say that I come from a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic thing. The slogan of Jamaica is like America’s ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ ‘out of many, one people.’”—Monty Alexander, 2014
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Fifty-five years after he moved to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica, his home town, pianist Monty Alexander is an American classic, touring the world relentlessly with various projects, delighting a global audience drawn to his vibrant personality and soulful message. His spirited conception is one informed by the timeless verities: endless melody-making, effervescent grooves, sophisticated voicings, a romantic spirit, and a consistent predisposition, as Alexander accurately states, “to build up the heat and kick up a storm.” In the course of any given performance, Alexander applies those aesthetics to repertoire spanning a broad range of jazz and Jamaican musical expression—the American songbook and the blues, gospel and bebop, calypso and reggae. Like his “eternal inspiration,” Erroll Garner, Alexander—cited as the fifth greatest jazz pianist ever in The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time (Hal Leonard Publishing) and mentioned in Robert Doerschuk’s 88: The Giants of Jazz Piano—gives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into while also communicating the message to the squarest “civilian.”
Born on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Alexander was playing Christmas carols by ear at 4, entertaining neighbors and relatives by 5, taking his first piano lessons at 6. He resisted formal instruction, but still, growing up in Kingston, absorbed all the musical flavors that comprise his mature sonic palette. “I soaked up everything—the calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung,” he recalls. When Alexander was 9, his father, a Kingston merchant, brought him to hear and play for the legendary pianist Eddie Heywood. At 10, he saw Nat “King” Cole play at Kingston’s Carib Theater, the same venue where, at 13, he heard a concert featuring Louis Armstrong.
“I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music,” Alexander says. “One was not more valuable than the other. Boogie-woogie was important to me, too. I’d sit at the piano and think I was the Count Basie Orchestra or a rhythm-and-blues band. I automatically reached for anything I wanted to play on the piano, and just played it. It didn’t come with practicing. It came with playing, playing, playing all the time.”
By 14, Alexander began to display his skills in local clubs. Soon thereafter, he made his first recordings, both as leader of a group called Monty and the Cyclones, and as a sideman for such legendary producers as Ken Khouri (Federal Records), Duke Reade (Treasure Isle), and Clement Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. These early sessions for Federal, which Alexander describes as “not calypso music, but the beginning of Ska,” included such subsequently famous aspirants of the day as trombonist Don Drummond, tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso and guitarist Ernest Ranglin.
But after moving to Miami with his mother in 1961, Alexander would sublimate Jamaican roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1963, he was ensconced in New York City, with a steady gig at Jilly’s, the eponymous West 52nd Street piano bar owned by Frank Sinatra’s close friend Jilly Rizzo. There, for the next four years, Alexander’s trio swung until the wee hours of the morning for Sinatra, a mix of celebrity entertainers, tough guys, thrill seekers, and such iconic jazzfolk as Miles Davis, Count Basie, Milt Jackson, and Roy Haynes. As the 1960s progressed, he also held regular gigs at Minton’s (the iconic Harlem lounge where bebop gestated) and at the Playboy Club, where he met and became friends with Quincy Jones. During these years, he also met Ray Brown and piano giant Oscar Peterson, who recommended Alexander to Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the proprietor of Germany’s MPS label, for which he made a dozen records between 1971 and 1985.
Alexander’s discography already included five leader LPs when he made his first MPS recording in 1971, with bassist Eugene Wright, drummer Duffy Jackson and conguero Montego Joe. By 1977, when Alexander made the tenth of his twelve sessions for MPS (Estate), he was internationally recognized as an upper-echelon master, deeply influenced by Brown’s “let’s party all night” approach to the piano trio function, as documented on two early ’70s dates with Wright and drummer Bobby Durham (We’ve Only Just Begun and Perception) and another two with bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton (The Way It Is and Montreux Alexander), then rising stars, with whom he spent, by his estimate, 300 days a year on the road during their 1976-1978 association.
On most of his other MPS recordings, Alexander shared solo and ensemble duties with Ranglin, including the still-sampled groove albums Rass and Cobilimbo, on which he explicitly explored Jamaican folk roots. He did the same on Jamento (1978), his second of three recordings for Norman Granz’s Pablo label, which introduced his “ivory and steel” concept of “marrying” steel pan (Vince Charles) and hand-drums (Larry McDonald) “to whatever bass player and drummer I had at the time.” He would repeat this instrumentation on the 1980 album Ivory and Steel (Concord), with Othello Molineaux on pans and Bobby Thomas on congas, and again in 1988 on Jamboree (Concord).
That said, most of Alexander’s 15 Concord recordings between 1978 and 1996 presented him in swinging trio contexts—five dates on which Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis reprised the roles they played with Oscar Peterson’s drummerless trio of the ’50s; effervescent sessions with Brown and drummers Hamilton or Frank Gant; a reunion with Clayton and Hamilton; a meeting with Clayton and ex-Peterson drummer Ed Thigpen titled The River that addressed spirituals and hymns (it was played at Jilly Rizzo’s funeral); another project on which bassist John Patitucci and drummer Troy Davis flow through repertoire that Alexander played at Jilly’s Bar. During these years, he also documented an inspiring solo recital at Maybeck Recital Hall for Concord; conversational duo encounters with Ranglin in 1980 and with Clayton in 1985 for MPS; and an impeccable one-off with bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Grady Tate for Soul Note.
Caribbean Circle (Chesky), from 1992, and Yard Movement (Island Jamaica Jazz), from 1996, previewed a series of albums for Telarc on which Alexander plays Anglophone Caribbean styles with musicians he’d known since his teens. (Island Records President Chris Blackwell created the Island Jamaica Jazz division specifically to release Yard Movement and an Alexander-produced Ranglin album called Below The Bass Line, which relaunched Ranglin’s career.) Yard Movement represents a musical turning point, marking Alexander’s first attempt to play acoustic grand piano with a straight-out reggae ensemble incorporating electric guitar and electric bass.
With Telarc, Alexander made further forays into this hybrid genre on a collaboration with drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare titled Monty Meets Sly and Robbie and on explorations of Bob Marley’s music titled Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle, while addressing a broader Jamaican spectrum on Goin’ Yard and Playin’ Yard. All the while, Alexander was probing more deeply into mento, Jamaica’s indigenous calypso. Descended from the French quadrille music to which English colonists danced in the nineteenth century, mento evolved into what Alexander calls “a deep country Jamaican thing” with African retentions—a banjo, a rhumba box that is akin to a bass kalimba, hand drums, and often harmonica, fiddle or pennywhistle. It spread throughout the island, and, as the 20th century unfolded, cross-pollinated with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, evolving into Ska.
“I was bummed out after it ended with John and Jeff because I’d gotten used to that precision, that projection,” Alexander said. “Although other people were fine and good, no one came close to that. So I spent more time in Jamaica. It’s simple music, two chords—but life is in those two chords.”
As Alexander’s explorations progressed, he found it ever more complicated to convene a single ensemble in which he could satisfactorily coalesce “things that reflect my heritage as an English-speaking Caribbean person” and his love for hard swinging jazz. “I would have a trio of jazz masters, and when I’d want to play something that reflected Jamaica, whether calypso or Bob Marley, I couldn’t get that thing because that’s not what they do,” Alexander said. “Conversely, the Jamaican guys didn’t relate to the jazz experience. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to share my two loves, which is one love, to coin Bob’s phrase.”
Midway through the ’00s, Alexander began to resolve the issue with a project dubbed Harlem-Kingston Express, first documented on the Grammy-nominated 2011 CD, Harlem-Kingston Express: LIVE, and its 2014 Soultrain Award nominated followup, Harlem Kingston Express 2: The River Rolls On, both on Motéma. The band on both recordings is a double trio—Hassan Shakur on contrabass and either Herlin Riley or Obed Calvaire on drums, and Jamaicans Glen Browne or Courtney Panton on electric bass and Karl Wright on drums. “It fulfills me, because it’s my own life experience,” Alexander says. “It’s like Barack Obama music. We are all cut from the same cloth.”
In live performance with Harlem-Kingston Express, Alexander spontaneously orchestrates, switching-off from straight-ahead to two-worlds-meet. “I’m captain of the ship, and everything is freewheeling,” he says. A boxing aficionado since his earlier days in Jamaica, he offers the sweet science as a metaphor. “It’s like you go into the ring, and you throw the left, you throw the right—but whatever you throw, throw it right,” he says. “There’s almost always some kind of jet taking off when I transfer the music to one rhythm or the other. Whether it’s 4/4 straightahead acoustic or a rhythm from Jamaica, it’s cathartic. It’s a bring-people-together thing, and the musicians enjoy each other. You can see the camaraderie, no matter who I’ve got. It’s constantly, ‘let’s do it this way, let’s do it that way.’ It never gets old.”
Meanwhile, Alexander continues to apply his creative, charismatic sensibility to the trio context, as demonstrated on Uplift and Uplift 2 (JLP), a pair of deep-swinging navigations of the American Songbook with Shakur on bass and Riley on drums on the former and either Clayton or Shakur on bass and either Hamilton or Frits Landesbergen on drums on the latter. It follows Alexander’s 2008 trio dates, Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole and The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett both on Chesky. Also in 2008, Bennett tapped Alexander as the featured pianist on A Swinging Christmas, with the Count Basie Orchestra.
“In our home, Nat Cole was the voice of America,” says Alexander, who describes the Cole and Armstrong concerts to which his father took him in the 1950s as a transformational moment. In 1991, he worked with Cole’s daughter, Natalie Cole, on Unforgettable, her 7-Grammy Award winning tribute album to her father. Other career highlights include a performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with a full orchestra under the direction of Bobby McFerrin at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, and recording the piano track on four selections of the soundtrack of Bird, Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic, Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic, and playing on Quincy Jones’ For Love Of Ivy film score.
Alexander would also perform on Jones’ 1970 Smackwater Jack album, sharing piano duties with Herbie Hancock, and on classic albums with Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry live at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival. He was a member of the first iteration of Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra during the middle 1980s, and played a memorable engagement with Sonny Rollins in 1990 on the Hudson River Jazz Cruise in New York City.
In August 2000, the Jamaican government designated Alexander Commander in the Order of Distinction for outstanding services to Jamaica as a worldwide music ambassador. In 2015, the great modern pianist Donald Vega released With Respect To Monty, which included his interpretations of seven Alexander compositions. Furthermore, 2016 will mark the seventh edition of the namesake Monty Alexander Jazz Festival in Easton, Maryland, for which he has served as Artistic Director and perennial performer every Labor Day weekend since 2010.
“I grew up learning Nat Cole’s songs, without knowing the titles, even before I knew about Sinatra,” Alexander continues. “My awareness of his piano playing came later; it was just that smooth voice. When I was little, I confused him with Gene Autry—I was always connecting one thing with another: ‘Wait a minute, that sounded like that.’ That’s why, even now, it’s one world of music for me. I try to remove all the lines. Even though I do this thing and that thing and the other thing, at the end of the day it’s Monty Alexander. I still seem to make people happy.”