June 17, 2024

Monte Alexander By Ellen Collison

Fans and fellow musicians know Monty Alexander as a strong, two handed pianist influenced by the work of Nat “King” Cole and Oscar Peterson. His joyful, swing playing has graced twenty Concord releases, fifteen of them as a leader. Alexander is a suburb interpreter of popular songs, and Echoes Of Jilly’s (CCD~769-2) offers him a rare chance to show off his skills on some of the best tunes in the genre. In so doing, he revisits his years as house pianist at Jilly’s, the legendary New York nightclub owned by Frank Sinatra’s friend Jilly Rizzo. Jilly’s was a watering hole for the glitterati and a home away from home to major show business personalities and a host of mega-jazz musicians including Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Errol Garner.

As Monty explains in his liner notes, Jilly’s was, first and foremost, a singers room. While working as an accompanist there, he backed many of the great exponents of The American Popular Song (Sammy Davis, Jr. and Judy Garland among them), but the headiest moment of all came when Frank Sinatra walked onto the bandstand with a few requests. One result of that most exhilarating of collaborations is this album, for Echoes Of Jilly’s is Alexander’s highly personal tribute to Ol’ blue Eyes, featuring thirteen numbers from his repertoire. Given that it is nearly impossible to pull a bad tune from Sinatra’s book, this album is no mere exercise in nostalgia on Alexander’s part. As a double bonus, Alexander’s interpretations of songs bearing the Chairman’s imprimatur are as original as they are authoritative.

Montgomery Bernard Alexander was born in Kingston, Jamaica on June 6, 1944. He began playing piano and accordion at age six. During his early years he absorbed the folk and popular music of his homeland, along with Trinidadian calypso and other Afro-Caribbean sounds and styles. North American popular music reached him via the radio, Hollywood movie musicals and attendance at live concerts by visiting R & B and jazz musicians such as Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, and one of the best singer-pianists of all time, Nat “King” Cole.

As a youth, Alexander sat in with musicians who were interpreters of older styles of Jamaican music, including ska, which was a blend of mento (traditional Jamaican dance music) and R&B. As he remembers those teenage years, “We’d go to house parties and ‘sound system’ dances. Musicians would cover the tunes that they saw American artists play live in the theaters. We’d try to imitate them, but somehow we always added our raw Jamaican flavors, so it turned into ska.” By his mid-teens, Alexander was fronting his own ska group, Monty And The Cvclones. The group reserved a semi-permanent spot on the Jamaican Hit Parade from 1958 to 1960.

Monty Alexander came to the United State in 1963 and played a slew of East Coast clubs ranging from New York to Clearwater, Florida. It was in Clearwater that he first attracted the attention of Jilly Rizzo, who offered him a standing gig as house pianist at his club. Alexander’s liner notes to Echoes Of Jilly’s capture the excitement musical and otherwise, of the club’s heyday as he experienced it from 1963 until his departure in 1967.

Alexander soon began working with many jazz greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. Indeed, he made his mark so quickly that by the mid 70’s he was performing and recording as a leader in the United States, Europe and Jamaica. In 1976, he was a headliner at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and he was recorded m concert with John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums. Alexander has always played straight ahead, hard swinging bop infused with island rhythms. His affection for island music led him to record a Carib-jazz album featuring the great Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin in 1978. Monty’s continuing exploration of his island roots has found particularly impressive expression in his three Ivory And Steel recordings for Concord.

The ever prolific Alexander has played on film soundtracks composed by Quincy Jones and served as a consultant to Clint Eastwood during the making of his film, “Bird.” Meanwhile, he still works with singers on a consistent basis. He accompanied Natalie Cole on her 1991 Grammy winning tribute to her father,Unforgettable. This year, he backed Concord recording artist Mary Stallings on her Manhattan Moods CD.

For Echoes Of filly’s, Alexander joined forces with the crack rhythm team of John Patitucci on acoustic bass and Troy Davis on drums. The combination, a natural, produced a recording with an unusually loose, live feel. From the first bars of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (which Davis gives a ska-plus-New Orleans-style second-line kick) to the earthy abandoned swing of “Fly Me To The Moon” and the aching “Angel Eyes,” a showcase for Patitucci’s warm, melodic playing, this set radiates style, balance and swing. Alexander plays “I’m A Fool To Want You” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” solo, using carefully calculated dissonances, reharmonizations, and a few grace notes plucked from Ravel to intensify these ballad’s sense of loss and longing. Monty also does a solo turn on a quintessentially Jamaican instrument, the melodica, on “Strangers In The Night” an appropriately bittersweet closer.

Echoes Of Jilly’s, Alexander’s first trio date since 1995’s Steamin’ (CCD-4636), demonstrates beyond doubt his impressive ability to discover fresh approaches to the trio setting. U.K. jazz critic Ken Rattenbury said it best: “As long as we get lashings of Monty, all will be right with the world!”

I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Call Me Irresponsible
The Su mmer Wind
Angel Eyes
You Make Me Feel So Young
Come Fly With Me
I’m A Fool To Want You
Here’s That Rainy Day
Just One Of Those Things
Strangers In The Night
All The Way
Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words)
In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning
Monty Alexander – piano
John Patitucci – bass
Troy Davis – drums
Monty Alexander Concord Discography  	CCD-4769	Echoes Of Jilly 's  	CCD4721	To The Ends Of The Earth  	CCD-4658	Maybeck Recital Hall Series, Vol. Forty  	CCD-4636	Steamin'  	CCD4422	The River  	CCD-4394	Triple Treat 111 (with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis)  	CCD-4359	Jamboree  	CCD4338	Triple Treat 11 (with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis)  	CCD-4287	Full Steam Ahead  	CCD4253	Overseas Special (with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis)  	CCD4231	Reunion In Europe (with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton)  	CCD4193	Triple Treat (with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis)  	CCD4136	Trio (with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis)  	CCD4124	Ivory And Steel  	CCD410X	Facets  

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