An Interview with Monty Alexander
Having a word with
by Mark Ruffin
Bob Marley and Oscar Peterson will be crossing paths this whole spring in the person of the amazing pianist Monty Alexander. He’ll be touring with his trio promoting his new album “Goin Yard.”
“Oscar Peterson will say ‘why don’t you cut your hair, man,” Alexander said laughing at the thought of the imaginary meeting. “Bob would say, ‘hey man, lighten up.”
Ever since the early 60’s, when the youthful looking 55 year-old Jamaican was discovered as a teen-ager by Frank Sinatra in a Las Vegas nightclub, he has been dazzling the jazz world with his lilting accent, Caribbean charm, devilish sense of humor, and world class jazz piano playing.
For the last seven years, however, the reggae world has taken notice of Alexander, as he has been concentrating on music from his homeland. His latest release, Goin’ Yard, is a live jazz/reggae album, featuring interpretations of two Marley songs, Exodus and Could You Be Loved.
Goin’ Yard succeeds Monty Meets Sly & Robbie, last year’s collaboration with Jamaica’s top rhythm section, and Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley, in 1999. While he has always toyed with mixing Jamaican folk music with jazz on many of his more than 50 albums, Alexander’s first full album of reggae was another live album, Yard Movement, in ’95.
“This really all started about 20 years back,” Alexander explained in his melodious island tongue. “I had a sense that I wanted to honor my heritage, and bring some Caribbean musicians into it.
“So, instead of getting American based cats, who are always great musicians, I wanted to introduce something people hadn’t heard before.”
The result was the creation of the 1980 album, Ivory And Steel, which feature Trinidadian steel drum player Othello Molineaux.
“He’s a great musician, but he happened to be playing an instrument outside the jazz system in America,” Alexander said of his island compatriot. ” I wanted to give jazz people something they have never heard before. But what happened was a sense of pride developed in the musical statement that we were making.”
Alexander first heard steel drums growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, where he was born. He started playing piano at the age of six, inspired by his parents’ piano playing friends.
“They weren’t accomplished enough to play Carnegie Hall,” he laughed, “but they could sit there and have some fun.
“I also heard local musicians who played calypso, the folk music of Jamaica. I heard those rhythms on banjos and guitars and it was all natural, like the blues in this country.
He also heard blues and r&b from New Orleans, and at the age of ten, he saw Louis Armstrong in concert. That was the incident that paved his road to jazz. Alexander absorbed and was influenced by piano players Errol Garner, Art Tatum, Ahmad Jamal, Eddie Heywood and of course Oscar Peterson. By the age of 15, he was on the Jamaican pop charts with his group Monty and the Cyclones.
In 1963, he was playing his first American job with Art Mooney’s orchestra when Sinatra and his friend, Jilly Rizzo saw him. Within weeks, he was the house pianist at New York City’s legendary bar, Jilly’s. That is where he met vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown, the two men who would help make Alexander an international jazz star.
Since that time, Alexander has recorded more than 50 albums for a variety of jazz labels. He would only periodically drop hints at his heritage early in her recording career by recording a calypso number or two. Then after Ivory And Steel, he’d periodically record a reggae tune, until like a derrick blowing it’s top, he erupted in reggae in the mid-90’s.
“The older I’ve gotten, the deeper my regard for my roots have grown,” Alexander said. “That’s a very big part of my music.”
While he was making a name for himself in jazz, the pianist had to watch the development of his homeland’s music from afar. But, watch and listen he did.
“I did not meet brother Bob,” Alexander said of his biggest musical regret. “So much of the environment he came from and the very studios he recorded in, I was there as a musician before him.
“When I came to America, he was in Jamaica functioning and getting more and more powerful with his musical statements. I kept tuned into the whole thing.
“I didn’t know Bob Marley, but I knew the world he was coming from,” said the musician who said he returns home two to three times a year, “A lot of friends of mine are of the Rastafarian persuasion, and I have nothing but honor and deep respect for those people and their music.”
That said; don’t expect your local jazz club to turn into the Reggae Sunsplash.
“I’m not a prisoner to my albums,” he concluded. “When I play, I let the spirit move me. The best I can be is what I do, and that can be the whole language of jazz piano, including blues, funky music and reggae.”
New Orleans drummer Troy Davis and young Los Angeles bassist, Brandon Owens, will join Alexander on tour.