Monday, March 30, 2015

Monty Alexander and The Jazz Critics

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been listening to pianist Monty Alexander for nearly half-a-century since I first caught him in performance at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Hollywood, CA as part of a quintet co-led by vibist Milt Jackson and tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards in August, 1969. The group was recorded in performance and the music was later released as an Impulse LP entitled That’s The Way It Is. Ray Brown was the bassist and Dick Berk was the drummer on that gig.

Monty was relatively new to the scene at that time and his playing just gassed everybody. The best description I ever read of Monty playing is that “ has an attitude that hovers between aggression and devil-may-care relaxation.” That description by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD 6th Ed. continues to be true of his style of playing to this day.

“Monty Alexander is one of the finest practitioners of the standard jazz piano trio performing today.

What sets Mony apart from most of his keyboard colleagues is the enormous range of his musical interests. He not only has paid his dues as a performer but, perhaps more importantly, as a listener as well.

He brings the joy of celebration to his work: a celebration of his life in music and the music of his life. Delightful surprises abound in both the selection of his material and the execution of same.”

Benny Green, the esteemed Jazz writer and critic, offered these comments about Monty in his liner notes to vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s Soul Fusion [Pablo S-2310 804]:

“… Alexander is a past master in the art of placing his accompanying chords, and knowing exactly which rhythm to use in defining them.

Some of the exchanges between he and Milt sound so tight as to be telepathic, so perfect is the balance between them. [This is particularly true of the tunes played at slower tempos].

The essence of a performance at this tempo are the silences, and the shapes into which the played notes mould those silences. Alexander is marvelous at this.

It is the sort of thing that no orchestrator could ever achieve, and which classical musicians have trouble comprehending.

It is an intuitive art, born of an alliance between inclination and experience, and is one of those aspects of Jazz which distinguish it from all other forms of making music."

Here’s more from Richard Cook and Brian Morton on Monty’s style:

“There have been many attempts to hybridize jazz and Afro-Cuban music, but relatively few to bring the rhythms of reggae, ska and mento into a jazz context. Jamaican-born Alexander remains the prime exponent, using steel pans in his Ivory and Steel group and exploiting Caribbean backbeats to a jazz idiom influenced by Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson.

“..., Alexander has never quite decided whether he is a Jamaican homeboy, an enthusiastic norteamericano, or indeed a European. He has fronted a style of jazz in which swing is recast in Caribbean rhythms, signalled by the steel pans, but also marked out by great formal control. Alexander now has an impressive back-catalogue of (mostly trio) recordings which reveal an exuberant sensibility schooled - sometimes a little too doctrinairely - in the School of Oscar Peterson. Typical of that tendency, he has a tone which is both percussive and lyrical, heavy on the triplets and arpeggiated chords, melodically inspired in the main (i.e. no long, chordal ramblings), maximal but controlled.

The trio is the ideal context for Alexander's playing.”

Whenever I want to experience what Duke Ellington so aptly described as “The Feeling of Jazz” at its best, I play a recording by Monty Alexander.

What a “swinga” this guy is.  

Derek Jewel of The London Sunday Times wrote of Monty that: “His work is in a sense, a history of Jazz piano … and yet, he distills all these influences into his own style.”

Monty comes out of everybody who has gone before him and I mean everybody: from Earl “Fatha” Hines to Teddy Wilson to Nat King Cole to Oscar Peterson; the man is a walking encyclopedia of Jazz piano.

Here are more insightful quotations about Monty’s work from other Jazz critics:

“Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander often gets compared to the great Oscar Peterson, but he brings his own bold, Caribbean-informed sensibility to everything he plays, and he is far more than just a Peterson clone.” 
- Steve Legget, allmusic

Monty Alexander belongs to the same piano tradition as Gene Harris and Junior Mance. All have a firm command of the blues that can effectively be translated into the ballad realm. Monty Alexander has been cultivating this style and approach for over forty years, with fresh evidence on his new live recording. Alexander's ..  is soulful orchestral piano playing, well conceived and thoughtfully executed. Long on intellect and emotion and short on cliché', Mr. Alexander perfectly distills his Caribbean roots into his interpretations of the American Standards.
- C. Michael Bailey all about jazz

“Audiences find Monty Alexander’s music instantly accessible, exciting and exhilarating, and they quickly warm to it and respond to it….”
- Mike Hennessey, Jazz writer/critic

“Monty plays – I mean plays – with Tatum’s grace, Peterson’s richness, Garner’s force, Nat Cole’s wit. And over all, the very real trio conception and brisk charts recall the tight structures of the early Ahmad Jamal trio.”
- Fred Bouchard, Downbeat

“The striking qualities of Alexander's playing are his intimate knowledge of the Jazz tradition, his reverence for the pre-bebop piano legacy, his prodigious technical facility, and his resilient connection to the cultural heritage of his native Jamaica.”
- Derk Richardson, columnist

“Monty continually creates very logical melodic lines and yet the constant surfacing of his improvisational surprises maintains interest no matter what musical context he presents to his listeners.”
- Jerry Dean, Jazz radio host

Monty’s records often as you will no doubt observe from the variety of cover art on display in the following video that features him performing bassist John Clayton’s composition 3,000 Miles [Steamin’ Concord Jazz CD 4636] with Ira Coleman on bass and Dion Parson on drums.

The same trio is in place for the rompin’ version of Pure Imagination [Steamin’ Concord Jazz CD 4636] that serves as the audio track to the following video featuring images from the movie Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.

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