Monty Alexander stirs up jazz and reggae at Jazz Aspen
ASPEN – When I ask Monty Alexander how he’s doing, the answer that comes back over the phone is a lyrical, drawn-out “Excellent, mon” that is distinctive to a certain Caribbean island that has made a global mark with its music. I tell Alexander, “Hey, you really sound Jamaican.” Which is kind of a dumb thing to say, given that Alexander is Jamaican – born in Kingston, spent the first 17 years of his life there, and has returned frequently to visit and make music.But as he tells me, over a long, enjoyable conversation that I didn’t want to end, there was a time when Alexander didn’t sound Jamaican, and, in fact, consciously tried to suppress most traces of his origins. As a young jazz pianist hanging out with the jazz greats, most of them far older than him, Alexander figured the likes of Ray Brown and Dizzy Gillespie wouldn’t think highly of the Jamaican patois, and back then – this was before the word reggae was even invented – certainly wouldn’t want those island folk rhythms making their way into the music.”I was trying to hide that part of me. I was putting on the [American] accent, trying to get along,” the 67-year-old said from a recording studio in Englewood, N.J., where he was making an album with his Italian wife, Katarina, a vocalist. “You say to yourself, these guys aren’t going to understand. You say Jamaica, and they say, ‘Long Island?’ So you say, What’s the point? I would try to match their speech, so they wouldn’t pick it out so clearly.”Much has happened over the five-plus decades since to significantly sway that line of thinking. Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff came along, and gave Jamaica a prominent spot on the world’s musical map. The globe, including the jazz realm, loosened up to non-American influences, with John Coltrane, and his embrace of Indian sounds, leading the way. And Alexander matured, finding himself no longer the go-along-to-get-along kid, but a respected artist.When Alexander appears Friday, to headline the first night of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ 21st annual June Festival, audiences will see a Jamaican in full. The Harlem-Kingston Express, as his concert is called, will have Alexander, on piano and melodica, straddling two separate combos – a jazz rhythm section of drums and upright bass, and a reggae group featuring electric bass and guitar. The music will float between jazz and reggae seamlessly – sometimes one or the other style, sometimes a hybrid of the two, sometimes with all the musicians playing at once. The night before our conversation, Alexander had just finished a sold-out, five-night run of the Harlem-Kingston Express as Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, a club inside the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex in midtown Manhattan.Assuming he draws from his new album “Harlem-Kingston Express: Live,” released last week, the repertoire will span from Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” to Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader,” and from boogie-woogie classics like “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” to the signature Jamaican standard, “Day-O (Banana Boat Song).” On the reggae side, Alexander can also draw from his pair of Bob Marley tribute albums – 1999’s “Stir It Up,” with covers of “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Could You Be Loved?” and “Jammin’,” and 2006’s “Concrete Jungle,” with versions of “Three Little Birds,” “War” and “Chant Down Babylon.” From the jazz side, Alexander can pull from the 60-plus jazz records he has made, several featuring his frequent rhythm section of bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis.••••As a 4-year-old in Kingston, Alexander found himself magnetically attracted to the piano. In the late ’40s, before television and with radio not yet a household staple, the piano was the entertainment center of the house, and little Monty was fascinated when his mother, a singer in church, would get music lessons.”The first time I sat at the piano I had no fear,” he said. “I felt like I was at home, like I had a personal connection.”Alexander didn’t start out with jazz (“Too sophisticated a music for a 4-year-old,” he said) or reggae (hadn’t been invented yet), but with nursery rhymes, Christmas carols and Jamaican calypso. But by age 7, he had become entranced with boogie-woogie piano, thanks to Fats Domino, and the swing blues of saxophonist and bandleader Louis Jordan. Alexander said the attraction came partly from a rebellious nature – he was supposed to be learning classical music – and partly from his Jamaican nature, which included an in-born propensity for rhythm.”All the songs with a beat – r&b, New Orleans, Fats Domino,” Alexander said, listing the styles that he gravitated toward as a kid. “I was a rebel. Because my teacher wanted me to play Bach and Beethoven. But I wanted blues and boogie-woogie, because it made people feel good, made them say, ‘Go kid, go.’ It made me feel good.”By the mid-’50s, bebop was already coming down from the heights of its popularity. But Alexander, at the age of 12, latched onto the music’s blazing tempos and emphasis on improvisation. “When I heard it, the thing I instantly detected was the idea of making it up as you play,” he said. “You put your heart and soul into the music and it could get exciting, take on a whole new life.”It was two musicians not associated with bebop, though, that Alexander points to as formative jazz influences. Alexander saw both Louis Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole perform in Jamaica, and it turned his head.”I didn’t really understand the stuff,” he said, “but I heard it, mimicked it, made my own stuff out of it. And I loved the beat, I loved grooving, when it started pulsating.” Within a few years, Alexander was sitting in with Jamaica’s best musicians, playing mostly ska, a forerunner to reggae, and developing his rhythmic approach to jazz. “I kept that beat, that very strong cultural thing from Jamaica. That same concept of rhythmic piano playing – that’s what Jamaican kids were doing to copy American doo-wop, blues. That’s what I went after. And the older guys I played with, they wanted to be jazz guys, play bebop.”At 17, Alexander’s mother moved Monty and his younger brother to Miami, in search of a new life. But for Alexander, one aspect of life was very much the same: the focus was on music. “While we were there figuring out what’s next, I’m wandering the streets, I’d wander into nightclubs, bars and meet the musicians. That’s what I was attracted to,” he said. “I got warm invitations to sit in with them, got agents saying, ‘I could book you.'”At 18, Alexander put together his first combo. A year later, playing at a noted Miami Beach spot, his audience included Frank Sinatra and his buddy Jilly Rizzo, who owned a prominent New York nightclub. Rizzo’s wife extended an open invitation for Alexander to come to New York. A few months later, Sinatra saw him again, in Las Vegas; by week’s end, Alexander was playing on 52nd Street, which had been the heart of Manhattan’s bebop scene in the ’50s.”For a kid from Jamaica, this was the big times. Very heady stuff for a young guy,” Alexander said, adding that Ray Brown and drummer Roy Haynes came to hear and play with him.••••While his career in the States started thriving – he released his first album as a leader in 1965 – Alexander kept his Kingston connections. In the late ’60s, he began to notice something happening with Jamaican music. “Singers were coming into the studio and they had the beat, the groove, that Americans didn’t have yet. It was the opposite of this jerky r&b, James Brown,” he said. A few years later, he heard Jamaican singer Desmond Dekker on the radio, singing his hit, “Israelites.” “And I said, that’s what we did a few years ago in Jamaica.”Still, Alexander didn’t know what was going to come out of his homeland. And then Bob Marley hit, in the mid-’70s. “The engaging aspects of the culture when Bob came along was so affecting. I loved everything that man did, as a man of values and inspiration,” he said. “The American college kids wanted to go to Jamaica and smoke the herb. You heard it on ‘American Bandstand.'”Ever so slowly, Alexander began letting his inner Jamaican out. He slipped some mento beats into his playing – “And the guys loved it. Ray Brown loved it. Because it was another thing for the musicians,” he said. “I was proud I could share this sound that I loved. I’d show the drummer how to make this beat, the way we moved, the way we walked in Jamaica. They couldn’t play it; you can’t mirror that groove. It’s a cultural thing.”In the late ’80s, Alexander, fully out as a Jamaican, began spending time with the renowned reggae rhythm section of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. The relationship ultimately yielded the 2000 album “Monty Meets Sly & Robbie,” with such funky tunes as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Chameleon.””I love Art Tatum; he’s the king of the mountain,” Alexander said of the Ohio-born jazz pianist. “But the music is you; it’s your life. The average Jamaican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, reacts by tapping their feet – it’s such a strong part of life. It’s waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night. It’s called home.”Putting such a rhythmic element into his music has had an unusual result – jazz audiences actually getting to their feet. “It’s real explosive, real uplifting,” Alexander said. “Everybody’s dancing – in a jazz club? That’s what it’s all about.”For the most part, Alexander remains seated at his piano in concert (though he does get up and shake it while playing the melodica, a hand-held, wind-powered keyboard). But having embraced all facets of his personality with the Harlem-Kingston Express, Alexander is now always dancing in his heart.”I’m a Jamaican guy. With an American experience,” he said. “And how can I share it with people, without throwing away everything I learned from Ray Brown, Dizzy? You gotta be who you are: Who are you when you’re making music?”I’m the kid in the candy store. I take all my stuff and it comes out one way of another.”email@example.com
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