Jamaican-born pianist and bandleader Monty Alexander is an old-school road warrior who still loves to rock the house with hard swing and deep island grooves. Though he has good ears and strong opinions, Alexander avoids theoretical analysis when listening to music, concentrating instead on feelings, emotions and experiences. While setting up, we talked about his growing up with mento music and American popular song in Kingston, his love for Louis Armstrong, Lord Kitchener and New Orleans R&B, and his big break in Miami, where he was discovered by Frank Sinatra and Jilly Rizzo. In recent years, Alexander has led his well-traveled jazz trio, as well as a reggae band. His latest release is Calypso Blues: The Songs of Nat King Cole (Chesky).
1. Nat “King” Cole
“Calypso Blues” (from The Nat King Cole Story, Capitol). Cole, vocal; Jack Costanzo, conga. Recorded in 1949.
[chuckles]. Nat. I’ve heard this so many times, and I knew Jack Costanzo very well. The timing of that recording came close to the time that Harry Belafonte did his calypso album. Nat was not a stranger to seeking popularity. He was somebody who could do anything he wanted. He was a natural. He loved music and he loved rhythms from the island. Who on earth would record a song with just a man beating on a conga, especially someone like Nat who was such a swinging musician? And he played so much piano, so that tells you about Nat’s daring, as well as his talent. I knew all these songs, what we called mento songs, and he was a beloved voice in our home. When I was 10 years old I walked down the street and imitated him because of the girl I had a crush on [sings Too Young]. Louis Armstrong also recorded a calypso around that time called “High Society.” So they were my ultimate heroes, Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole. I saw them in Kingston when I was about 11 years old. Incredible. They were artists as well as entertainers. They had that thing, that show biz thing. So you just played a man who’s everything to me. He went for the brass ring, and he got it because everybody loved him.
“Daily Living” (from Virtue. Sony Masterworks Jazz). Eldar Djangirov, piano, keyboards; Armando Gola, bass; Ludwig Afonso, drums. Recorded in 2008.
Before: I’m speechless. Those are amazing musicians playing amazing music. And they’re operating on a system I don’t really know much about. There’s sophisticated, phenomenal technique, but also the skill and creative talent for playing in different time signatures. It’s astounding to hear and I appreciate it very much, but I don’t live in that world. I just shook my head and said wow, what was that? It might not be something I know how to play or want to play. But it’s very beautiful.
After: I knew Eldar when he was 14 years old. He’s playing on another level now, like the man from another planet. He could have gone down the Art Tatum road or the Bud Powell road. He’s a multi-talented young man. I met his mom and I saw that old school family dynamic and I knew he would go great places. I haven’t seen him in a long time but I keep hearing little bits and pieces of him and about him. And whenever I hear him I’m astounded. But this is a different Eldar to the Eldar of 5 years ago. So who knows where he’ll be in 10 years, another planet [laughter]. Some guys sound like they play once in a while, but this guy plays all day. He’s brilliant. Thanks for playing that.
3. Fred Hersch
“Insensatez” (from Fred Hersch plays Jobim, Sunnyside). Hersch, piano. Released in 2009.
Before: Really, really good. I enjoyed that. It’s somebody who loves harmony and paints a beautiful picture. I feel this beautiful painting unfolding with a beautiful touch. Jobim would love it. I don’t think in terms of chords or keys or analyzing it. So when I hear that, it’s just flying and floating in the air. That person don’t need a bass or a drum. The touch, it’s oozing like caramel dripping.
After: Fred Hersch is all right with me. I met him once and I always hear about him doing this and doing that. He’s a mighty talented guy. This is beautiful. Mr. Fred, my hat is off to you. I have to pick this up. Complicated and slick is fine, but I love beauty.
4. Cyrus Chestnut
“Lean On Me” (from Spirit, Jazz Legacy). Chestnut, piano. Recorded in 2008.
Before: That’s a fine piano player who is open to the street, the popular thing. That’s Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” It’s an inspirational song. It’s a popular spiritual. He’s a two-handed guy and he likes to play a bass line and he’s keeping the song inspired. Good pianist.
After: There you go. Like I said, a good pianist. I know him very well. He has a command of today. But it’s not the kind of song where he’s gonna fly. He’s keeping it enjoyable for the listener who loves “Lean On Me.” But I’ve heard him where he goes off; wicked, swinging. Because he’s one of the few young piano players who tapped into that tradition that was part of the landscape in those days, one of the guys who came after Ray Bryant, playing piano with two hands, reaching down into what you call the bucket. It’s got the church influence. I think the world of Cyrus Chestnut. He’s one of my favorite piano players. You bring your life into the music. This music is supposed to be life. The schooling thing is wonderful, but most of the younger musicians aren’t playing life, yet. Cyrus is playing life.
5. Helge Lien Trio
“Gamut Warning” (from Hello Troll, Ozella). Lien, piano; Frode Berg, bass; Knut Aalefjoer, drums. Recorded in 2008.
Before: I don’t know who the bandleader is, but the first thing I’d say is the bass player should get paid extra [laughter]. He’s working awful hard. It’s a marvelous, experimental trip, walking in space or something. It’s interesting because with new things I’m not sure what I like and what I don’t like anymore. I don’t know if this is a guilt trip I put on myself as I age and the music has changed, but I owe it to common decency to be aware of a lot of things going on in the music world. But so many things come along; I have to make sure I open my mind if I run into these things that takes people to another place. It’s got to take you somewhere or make you feel good where you are. But I don’t want to be transported to a gloomy place. This guy painted a picture that was of, how can I say it, a sinister spirit. It’s a marvelous painting of something dark. It’s like going down a dark alley in an old movie. There wasn’t a lot of motion going on with it. It was a specific thing. It’s not my choice.
After: What can I say? Excellent, good, keep going.
6. McCoy Tyner
“Naima” (from Solo: Live From San Francisco, Half-Note). Tyner, piano. Recorded in 2007.
Before: Life makes us grow in different directions. If that was McCoy, that is an amazing man. In certain years of his life, there was nothing like what he did. He made that piano walk across the stage. There was thunder and lightening. I have such admiration for that incredible artist. If it’s not McCoy, he got from McCoy the desire to slam the keys with his left hand in such a way that was like thunder and lightening dropping. It was a force when McCoy Tyner played the piano. This was someone very influenced by him.
After: [looks at the portrait of Tyner on the cover] I love you. It’s the person and the character. He was playing a whole lot more simply on this than he would have years ago. This man ate up the piano and spit it out. As time goes on you become more gentle, taking your time. So this is McCoy the way he is now. But every now and then the power comes out. I felt his presence on the piano, but it’s a whole different man at a different stage in his life. It’s still beautiful and powerful. He wrote the book with the intensity of his playing; the excitement and the energy, nothing like him.
7. Martial Solal
“Have You Met Miss Jones” (from Live at the Village Vanguard, CamJazz). Recorded in 2007.
Before: Wow. That’s kind of a mischievous fellow. He’s an impish, funny guy. It’s something that a Frenchman would do [laughter]. I never heard anybody in America play like that. I enjoy that the guy is coming with a sense of humor. I appreciate that.
After: God bless you. I’ve heard him. He’s a guy with a very active mind and he can play the heck out of the piano. He’s having fun, which I like.
8. Ahmad Jamal
“Ahmad’s Blues” (from The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings, Legacy). Jamal, piano; Ray Crawford, guitar; Eddie Calhoun, bass. Recorded in 1952.
[immediately]Ahmad Jamal is beyond belief. He’s not coming from playing the piano. He’s coming from a very special place that you can’t touch. It’s mystical. When he makes his music he’s not of this earth. He’s got a great, great gift. I first heard “Poinciana” back in Jamaica in the late ‘50s. It grabbed me. It gave me a wonderful sense and a feeling of all this rhythm, but with all the subtlety. He would just dance on the keys. He’s Horowitz on the one hand, he’s a gutbucket grooving swinging musician on the other. He’s a master painter and he’s a great orchestrator. And along with Nat King Cole, he wrote the book on what this is all about. He’s on another level. There’s joy coming out of his true nature; makes you happy, makes you smile, makes you groove, makes you dance.
Name 3 records that changed your life?
Louis Armstrong Ambassador Satch; a piano record of Eddie Heywood, Soft Summer Breeze; and Errol Garner’s Concert By The Sea. And I can’t forget all the r&b with Ray Charles, Huey “Piano” Smith, Roscoe Gordon, and “Poinciana” itself.
Listening session conducted Nov. 2009 for JazzTimes. Photograph by Larry Appelbaum.