The full Monty
Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander revisits the Jazz Factory (815 W. Market St, 992-3242) on Jan. 16 for a double shot of his joyful, irie-laced material.
Alexander is famous for, among other things, backing Frank Sinatra in a handful of performances as a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old thrust into New York’s vivacious jazz club scene during the early 1960s.
His jazz IQ grew as he soaked up knowledge from Art Blakey, Count Basie and Miles Davis. Perhaps just as critically, Alexander eluded the rampant drug-and-alcohol trap that ended the lives of many peers far too soon.
“There were no music school back then,” he tells LEO. “You learned whatever you learned by being around those great guys, picking it up by social circumstance. (Jazz is) not just about music, but people.”
Young as he was, Alexander never wanted for work, lived modestly in an apartment with friends from Jamaica and was watched over by his mentors.
Later, he spread his creative wings — and his influence — even further than he imagined. Natalie Cole handpicked him to play on her homage to dear old dad, Unforgettable. In 1999, Alexander married the uplifting sounds of reggae and traditional jazz on his interpretation of Bob Marley’s classic album Stir It Up and its 2005 sequel, Concrete Jungle.
As a Jamaican, Alexander knew full well that if you’re going to do Bob, you’d better not screw it up, or water it down.
“It’s tender territory,” he says. “My life is connected with Jamaica; the musicians on the record are home brothers. (Stir It Up) is more than just a jazz experience; it’s a social and spiritual journey. It was not a jazz gesture; it was a human gesture.”
To this day, Alexander observes the musical environment in Jamaica from afar, but it’s hard to tell whether he likes what he sees. Growing up, he explains, musicians used actual instruments to express themselves, but the scene and the genres within it have since become compartmentalized, and because of that, the players now don’t know much about jazz.
In fact, most are using electronic keyboards and drum machines. “The advent of the drum machine removed the quest for virtuosity,” he says. “You stopped seeing the horn players, and the pianists were keyboard players now. With very little exception, you’re not going to run into instrumentalists.”
Which is why Alexander will give the crowd at the Jazz Factory Wednesday a taste of the way things used to be: an evening of music that uplifts and transcends, common themes for Jamaicans, and for the world.
“My first exposure to music was seeing the calypso musicians and the joy that was being transmitted,” he says. “That’s a high-falutin’ way of saying they were having a ball.”
Shows are at 7 and 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 for each, $30 for premium stage-side seating.
Mat Herron is LEO’s music editor, and believes people are generally good. Contact him at [email protected]