In acknowledgment of pianist Monty Alexander’s 71st birthday today, here’s a feature I wrote for DownBeat in 2010. I’ve appended below an interview that I conducted with Monty for a Ray Brown tribute that appeared in DownBeat after the bass grandmaster passed away in 2002.
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Monty Alexander Downbeat Article:
The adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” coined to convey the kindling effect of separation on romantic ardor, applies with equal measure to pianist Monty Alexander’s ongoing obsession with the music of Jamaica, his homeland, whence he migrated to Miami in 1961, at 17.
As a Kingston youngster, Alexander recalled, “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 and Miles, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung. I was fully aware of the rhythm-and-blues, my heroes on piano were Eddie Heywood and Erroll Garner, and, above all, Louis Armstrong was my king. I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music—no one more valuable than the other.”
Once in the States, though, Alexander compartmentalized, sublimating roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1970, he was a distinguished voice, with a c.v. citing long-haul trio gigs with various New York A-listers, as well as consequential sideman work in Los Angeles with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown. By the late ‘70s, when he closed the books on his 300-days-a-year-on-the-road trio with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, he was an upper-echelon stylist, referred to by Oscar Peterson, himself descended from St. Kett’s and St. Croix, as “my little West Indian counterpart.”
“You come to America, you try to blend in and do what they do,” Alexander explained. “At first, I was even trying to speak like American people”—he demonstrated several voices—“so they wouldn’t keep asking, ‘Where do you come from?’ But as the years went by, I started expressing myself by claiming my heritage more. I said, ‘Wait a minute, home is as good as it gets.’”
In Orvieto, Italy, for a five-concert engagement at Umbria Jazz Winter 2010, Alexander spoke in the high-ceilinged sitting room of his hotel, which evoked a ducal mansion. With him for the week was a band comprising an acoustic trio with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer George Fludas and a plugged-in Jamaican contingent—Wendell Ferraro on guitar, filling both soloistic and comping roles, Glen Browne on bass, and Karl Wright on drums.
Dubbed the Harlem-Kingston Express, this instrumental configuration—documented on the 2011 release, Harlem-Kingston Express (Motéma), comprising live dates at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola and in Europe—is the most recent iteration of a series of Alexander-conceptualized efforts over the past few decades to coalesce “things that reflect my heritage as an English-speaking Caribbean person” with the principles of hardcore swinging jazz. “I was bummed out after it ended with John and Jeff because I’d gotten used to that precision, that projection,” he said. “Although other people were fine and good, no one came close to that, and I’m not one to go scouting.” To recharge, he began spending quality time in Jamaica. “I’d go to the studio with Sly and Robbie, who know me from way back. It’s simple music, two chords—but life is in those two chords.”
Later in the ‘80s, Alexander—whose first Jamaica-centric dates were the still-sampled mid ‘70s MPS groove albums Ras and Demento—started to present units with which he could incorporate Caribbean flavors, including an “Ivory and Steel” ensemble with steel drummer Othello Molyneaux and hand drummer Bobby Thomas “married to whatever bass player and drummer I had at the time.” After signing with Telarc in the mid ‘90s, he embarked on a succession of recordings on which he reunited with musicians he’d known since teen years, among them several dates with guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and one with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Four other recordings—Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle reveal Alexander’s take on Bob Marley’s music, while Goin’ Yard and Playin’ Yard address a broader Jamaican spectrum—hearken to mento, Jamaica’s indigenous calypso, descended from the French quadrille music to which English colonists danced in the nineteenth century. Mento evolved into, as Alexander puts it, “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 progressed, cross-pollinated with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, evolving into Ska.
As Alexander delved ever deeper into these rediscovered interests, he found it increasingly difficult to convene a single ensemble in which he could satisfactorily convey them. “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.”
This feeling had permeated the previous evening’s concert. Alexander came to the piano, positioned stage center to the left of Shakur and Fludas. He opened with Ellingtonian chords, and launched a chugging train blues, transitioned to the changes of “Blue and Boogie,” then returned to an Ellington medley that resolved into “Caravan.” After brief remarks, a brisk stomp through “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and some nachtmusik chords, the Rasta-dreaded Browne and Wright, who wears white driving gloves when playing, entered stage right, and laid down phat Reggae riddims. Playing percussively, Alexander soon segued into Ernest Gold’s “Exodus,” blew a melodica, quoted “let my people go” within his solo, returned to the piano bench, and ended with a flourish. With the trio, he played a shuffle blues, then a hard-swinging blues—midway through the latter, he stood, pointed to the Jamaicans, and orchestrated a metric modulation, quoting “Manteca” in his solo, before seguing into Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” The back-and-forth proceeded for another half-hour, before Alexander concluded with a romping “Come Fly With Me” and a melody-milking rendition of “All The Way.”
“Recently I’ve been doing this with more commitment than before,” Alexander remarked of the real-time genre-switching. “I’m fulfilled, because it’s my own life experience. It’s like Barack Obama music. We are all cut from the same cloth.”
Perhaps twenty years ago, Alexander got angry at someone, intended to hit them, thought better of it, punched the wall instead, and broke his hand. “Ever since that day, I don’t play as fast as I used to,” he said. “But instead of playing twenty notes that may or may not mean that much, I started playing six or seven that hopefully are soulful or meaningful. Sometimes I’m playing and the muscle tightens, and I look like a kid who takes one index finger and goes PLINK-PLINK-PLINK. I think, ‘Shit, that must look terrible to the audience, this so-called ‘good’ piano player playing with his index finger.’”
The chops are abundant on Uplift (JSP), a deeply swinging navigation of the American Songbook with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley that follows the 2008 trio dates, The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett and Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole [Chesky] as companion pieces to his excellent 1997 Sinatra tribute, Echoes of Jilly’s [Concord]. Rather than abstract the tunes, Alexander hews to the iconic arrangements, illuminating the music from within, deploying effervescent grooves, lovely rubatos, a killing left hand, an innate feel for stating melody, well-calibrated touch, harmonic acumen, and an ability to reference a broad timeline of piano vocabulary stretching to pre-bop. Each interpretation embodies a point of view. Like his “eternal inspiration,” Erroll Garner, Alexander gives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into, while also communicating the message to the squarest “civilian.”
“In our home, Nat Cole was the voice of America,” said Alexander, who experienced a transformational moment in 1956 when he saw Cole play on a package concert in Kingston with Louis Armstrong. “I grew up learning his songs, without knowing the titles, even before I knew about Sinatra. My awareness of his piano playing came later; it was just that smooth voice. At first I confused him with Gene Autry. I was always connecting one thing with another—‘Wait a minute, that sounded like that.’ That’s why for me, even now, it’s one world of music. I try to remove all the lines.”
By 1956, Alexander had already spent half his life entertaining people with music. “I’d emulate people my folks knew who played old-time stride,” he said. “I was playing boogie-woogie from the getgo, rockin’ the joint. I just had fun at the piano.” Later, he would extrapolate a conceptual framework from Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 classic, “Poinciana.” “It was a merging of two worlds,” he said. “Sophistication on the piano, harmonic wonderment, and the nastiest jungle rhythm going on in the background. That’s Jamaica. It’s about dancin’, it’s about groovin’—it’s all one thing.”
Such formative experiences gave Alexander a certain ignorance-of-youth confidence when he started playing in “tough guy clubs” in Miami Beach, where hookers congregated and alcohol “flowed like crazy.” Within a year he was working at Le Bistro, a two-room joint where he shared the bill with a Sinatra impersonator named Duke Hazlitt. One night after a concert at the Fontainebleau, Sinatra came through with an entourage, including Sinatra’s consigliere, Jilly Rizzo, and Rizzo’s wife, Honey.
`“I’m playing, minding my own business, trying to behave, not to be too noisy,” Alexander recalled. “But I must have been kicking up a storm, because apparently Honey came in and told Jilly to come hear this kid play. In those days, I’d come in with all guns blazing. She told me, ‘We’ve got this club in New York, Jilly’s, and it would be nice to have you play in there, kid.”
About a year later, midway through 1963, Rizzo finally brought Alexander to his eponymous West 54th Street tough guy bar, which doubled as Sinatra’s late night office. Just 19 and residing a few blocks away in the Hotel Edison, Alexander joined Local 802, situated directly across the street from the club, and assumed his place among New York’s jazz elite. Within a few years, he was also working uptown at Minton’s Playhouse, “before a different crowd of tough guys; drug people and hot goods,” and at the Mad Men era Playboy Club.
“I remember sitting at Jilly’s piano bar, a few feet away from Miles Davis and Frank in deep conversation,” Alexander reminisced. “My crowning point was when Miles came to me and said, ‘Where did you learn to play that shit?’ Next thing, he writes his phone number on a little matchbook, and we’re hanging out at his house or going to the fights. Miles told me, ‘You got the right complexion.’” Alexander noted that his bloodline is an admixture of Lebanese, Spanish and African strains, and that the ambiguity as to his racial identity had a great deal with to do with his ability to comfortably navigate various circles in Jim Crow Miami as well as New York City. “At Minton’s they’d say, ‘What’s this Puerto Rican guy doing who can play jazz like that?’ When I first saw Ray Brown’s picture on an Oscar Peterson record cover, I saw the smile and the teeth and said, ‘Damn, Uncle Jim!’”
More than the familial resemblance, Alexander was drawn to Brown’s consistency, his tone, the truck-coming-down-the-road surge of his beat, and he tried to be around him whenever he could. “One night Ray was in town with Quincy Jones to make the album Walking In Space, and I asked him if he wanted to go out,” he recalled. “I took him to the Half Note to hang out with Coleman Hawkins and Major Holley. After he hung out with Bean, he said, ‘What’s going on uptown?’ ‘There’s a little bar called Docks, and Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones play duo there.’ ‘Ok, let’s go.’
“I got to know Ray better. I went to see him in L.A. at the Gaslight. When I got there, nobody’s listening, nobody cares, it’s the last set, and they had to play one obligatory tune. Frankie Capp walks to the drums, Mundell Lowe picks up the guitar, but the piano player is boozed-out at the bar. I asked Ray, ‘Can I play a tune?’ Within two choruses, he’s screaming, he’s groovin’ and I’m groovin’, and we’re as happy as kids in the candy jar. He said, ‘Where are you going to be this summer? I want you to play with me and Milt Jackson.’
“When you’re in company with people who are at a certain level, it upgrades your musicianship. I’d been smitten with the MJQ since I saw a record with these four dignified black men on the cover—they looked like funeral directors. I learned about the connections—John Lewis and Ray with Dizzy’s big band, Hank Jones telling Dizzy about Ray. I took that personal thing on the bandstand. I felt like I belonged to that crowd of people.”
In spontaneously orchestrating the Harlem-Kingston Express band in live performance, Alexander seemed to be paralleling the bandstand procedures by which both Ahmad Jamal and Duke Ellington deployed their units to convey their intentions in real time. The pianist concurred.
“It’s a kind of joyful, loving dictatorship,” he said. “That’s why I use musicians who are willing and easy-going, who give me their trust and confidence and won’t question what I’m doing.”
Moreso than instant composition a la Jamal and Ellington as an m.o. for following the dictates of the moment, Alexander focuses on serious play. “I don’t read music and I play by ear,” he said. “You can chalk it up to a certain amount of laziness, because if I really wanted to read, there’s no reason I can’t. I took lessons with an older white lady from England who slapped my knuckles to play the scales. I learned to love her, because she meant well and she saw my talent—that taught me respect for the instrument and to get a sound, so the music starts to fly. But when I see paper in front of me, man, I start sweating. That part of my brain doesn’t function well. I don’t know how to play music that’s not coming from my instant, make-it-up stuff.
“I get bored with a planned format. I can’t repeat the same thing twice. I’m always reaching for now, live in the now, present tense, and I look for inspiration from wherever.”
This blank slate attitude inflects the aforementioned trio projects. “I just went in the studio,” Alexander said, referencing the 2008 Nat Cole tribute. “‘Haji Baba’ is from a movie with Nat, and I used to sing walking down the street when I was nine—I listened to the bridge on that and on ‘Again’ to make sure I had it right. But 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.”
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Monty Alexander on Ray Brown, 2002:
TP: When did your association with Ray Brown begin?
MONTY ALEXANDER: It began around 1966 or 1967. I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better. He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar. I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.
Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.” I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.
But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing. They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club. The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?” Ray said, “Yeah.” We started playing. And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too. It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music. We just played some blues. Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that. This was 1968.
TP: When was the last time you played with him?
ALEXANDER: We made what probably was his last recording. He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc. We were all very happy to be together. We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe. We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.
TP: And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.
ALEXANDER: With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it. Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio. He would have a trio. Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat. We made about five CDs for Concord. We were playing and having a good thing.
TP: Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician? Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002? I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.
ALEXANDER: Ray Brown was like Art Tatum. I’ll tell you why. The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning. So it was already beyond words. And Ray Brown was that. Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal. There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment. In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine. That’s what it was. I mean, that’s just my little parlance.
To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke. He’s a king. He’s not a normal level of bass player. He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.
TP: It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.
ALEXANDER: He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him. He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work. He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard. A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing. It was just a fat, beautiful tone. I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard. Maybe. But I couldn’t prove it. I was always astounded.
TP: Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?
ALEXANDER: Well, the old guys were fading away also. Whether or not he used young guys is not the point. The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.
TP: So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.
ALEXANDER: Exactly. And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength. Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance. Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.
TP: As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?
ALEXANDER: Well, I was never a student. When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder. That was my attitude in music from the beginning. I was just so stubborn and ignorant! I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play. Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him… And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing. We didn’t play with him; we played for him. It was like we played together. At least, that’s what I saw and heard.
TP: So his lessons to you were life lessons.
TP: Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.
ALEXANDER: You said it well. It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop. It’s like the way he played. In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’! That’s what he did. You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing. He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.” The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were. Enough was enough. And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.
TP: I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while. But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…
ALEXANDER: The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up. He never backed up a thing.
To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life. He played like his life depended on that note.
I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive. Because he was larger than life. Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive! This is emotional and personal. He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother. But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone. I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it. He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff. But yet, he was so busy. Larger than life, man.