Monty Alexander's Ivory And Steel
By grafting the traditions of American jazz to his authentic Jamaican roots, pianist Monty Alexander has spent a lifetime exploring the rich depths of musical and cultural diversity. In a career that spans more than four decades, he has performed and/or recorded with artists from every corner of the musical universe: Frank Sinatra, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and many more.
Through it all, he continues to draw inspiration from the great icons of American music and popular culture. "All these people came from struggling circumstances,” he says. "They didn’t go to music school. They came from the street. Nat Cole, Sinatra, Louis Armstrong—they all had to hustle to get where they got. It’s that story of people who can grow up in America or come to America and achieve something just because they have this great attitude and they have the talent to go with it, and they reach for something and they get it.”
In many ways, Alexander has lived that same story. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, he took his first piano lessons at age six. As a youngster, he was often invited to sit in with the bands of prominent musicians working in Jamaican nightclubs and hotels. During his teen years, he enjoyed, among others, the performances of Louis Armstrong and Nat "King” Cole at the Carib Theater in Jamaica. The shades of joyful gospel music in these artists’ performances had a profound and lasting effect on Alexander’s own style. He eventually formed a band called "Monty and the Cyclones,” which landed several songs on the Jamaican music charts between 1958 to 1960.
Alexander came to the United States in the end of 1961. Less than two years later, he’d landed a gig with Art Mooney’s orchestra in Las Vegas, where he caught the eye of New York City club owner Jilly Rizzo and his friend, Frank Sinatra. Rizzo hired the young pianist to work in his club, where he accompanied many well-known performers, including Sinatra. He also met Milt Jackson, who hired Monty to work with him, and eventually introduced him to bassist Ray Brown (with whom he subsequently recorded and performed on many occasions). One introduction led to another, and before long he was working with Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Sonny Rollins.
In the past decade alone, Alexander has maintained an especially busy schedule with multiple projects spanning multiple genres and styles. In 1991, he assisted Natalie Cole in crafting a tribute album to her father, Nat "King” Cole (the album, Unforgettable, won seven Grammy awards). In 1993, he had performed at Carnegie Hall in a tribute to the great jazz pianist Erroll Garner.
A regular fixture at the Montreux Jazz Festival since 1976, he performed at the Swiss festival in 1993 and 1994 with opera singer Barbara Hendricks in a program of Duke Ellinton compositions. He was back in Montreux in 1995, this time with his all-Jamaican reggae group where he recorded a live album for Island Records, Yard Movement.
In August 1996, Alexander performed George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue” with a full symphony orchestra directed by Bobby McFerrin at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. By the end of that same year, he had recorded nearly sixty CDs under his own name, and was frequently performing at leading festivals and music venues worldwide.
Alexander joined the Telarc label with the 1999 release of Stir It Up, an album that combined acoustic jazz and Jamaican reggae rhythm sections to interpret the music of the great Bob Marley. He was joined in he studio by the Jamaican reggae rhythm section known as Gumption. Gumption interfaced rhythmically with the jazz rhythm section, which included drummer Troy Davis and bassist Hassan Shakur. Telarc labelmate Steve Turre guested on trombone and conch shells.
Stir It Up marked the beginning of a prolific period for Alexander on Telarc—one that continues to this day. In 2000, he released Monty Meets Sly and Robbie, an album featuring Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare—reggae’s most respected and experienced rhythm section. This summit meeting of multi-talented and multi-faceted players results in a vibrant combination of classic soul tunes, funky jazz and hardcore grooves.
Goin’ Yard, released in 2001, was recorded live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Goin’ Yard united Alexander with a six-piece band of Jamaica’s finest musicians, including special guest hand drummer Robert Thomas Jr.
Alexander’s My America, released in 2002, includes guest appearances by guitarist John Pizzarelli and vocalists Freddy Cole and Kevin Mahogany. The following year, he teamed up with his jazz trio—including bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Mark Taylor—for the first time in five years for Impressions in Blue. The album is a celebration of the bluesier side of jazz, with eleven tracks that include favorites from the great American songbook, as well as few selections of more exotic origin.
Alexander revisited his roots with Rocksteady, a collaborative album with reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin release on Telarc in 2004. The album is a tribute to the ska movement that flourished in Jamaica’s Studio One (the island version of Motown) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and eventually spread throughout the world.
Live at the Iridium followed a year later. The live set, which also features bassist Hassan Shakur, drummer Mark Taylor and percussionist Robert Thomas, Jr., captures the energy and passion of Alexander’s stage performance at the well-known New York City jazz club.
In the late summer of 2005, Alexander traveled to Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, with a crew of highly talented U.S. and Jamaican session players to record the brilliant followup to Stir It Up. Concrete Jungle, scheduled for release in March 2006, is a set of twelve compositions penned by Bob Marley and reinterpreted via Alexander’s jazz piano-oriented arrangements. The resulting union of musical sensibilities digs even deeper into the Marley legend.