Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2009: Steve Turre

Monty Alexander: Joyride

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As a growing centre for jazz music in North America, Winnipeg has been graced with a steady string of concerts performed by the most acclaimed musicians in the jazz genre today. They pass through bringing with them their culture, their musical prowess and experience, their wealth of knowledge and their will to share it all. They offer our city a surge of energy, an abundance of information, and a new perspective on the possibilities of jazz music.

The Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series is reflective of the jazz genre itself: it is eclectic, diverse, and influenced by cultures from all corners of the world, yet it has strong roots in the blues, swing and bebop. This spring, Monty Alexander takes us right into the heart of the tradition, and adds a little Jamaican spice.

Monty Alexander was born in June of 1944 in Kingston, Jamaica, and spent the first seventeen years there. He began piano lessons at age six, but describes himself as primarily self-taught. Surrounded by a fertile and diverse musical environment, he absorbed elements from many musical genres which can now be found in his own playing. Among these genres was jazz, especially the smooth velvety voice of Nat King Cole and the blaring trumpet of Louis Armstrong he heard at the Carib Theatre in Kingston. Monty was profoundly affected by both those concerts.

Since then, Monty Alexander has himself become an important musician in the jazz scene worldwide, having recorded over 70 albums as a leader. Following his family’s move to the United States in 1961, he began to play with Art Mooney’s orchestra in Las Vegas. There he was heard by New York club owner Jilly Rizzo, who was so impressed by his playing he immediately hired Monty to accompany Frank Sinatra at his club in New York. In the hub of jazz, Monty was surrounded by the best musicians of his day, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown, both of whom became important collaborators throughout Monty’s career.

While Monty Alexander’s music is most often categorized as jazz, his projects are far-reaching. One of his recent albums, Concrete Jungle, melds his jazz piano expertise with the songs of Jamaican legend Bob Marley. The result is a tasteful and intriguing balance of styles. In contrast to Concrete Jungle, his most recent work, The Good Life, is a tribute to the singer Tony Bennett.

His proficiency in numerous contexts has led him to perform with an impressive array of artists including Bobby McFerrin and John Clayton. He has also worked with Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom performed extensively in the Afro-Cuban and calypso style and helped to bridge jazz and Caribbean music. Monty worked with Natalie Cole on her award-winning album, Unforgettable. In 2008, he led the Jazz at the Lincoln Center’s “Lords of the West Indies,” a program featuring the best of today’s reggae and calypso musicians.

Monty Alexander has had a busy and successful career as a musician for over five decades. His music has taken him across the globe, playing festivals and concert stages and clubs in Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. He is listed in the top five in Gene Rizzo’s The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time, and has been honored by the Jamaican government with the title of Commander in the Order of Distinction.

No matter the place, the style, or the configuration of musicians he’s playing with, Monty Alexander’s primary purpose in creating music remains to bring joy to his audience. His playing has the relaxed rhythmic feel that is so characteristic of Caribbean musicians, and he moves through recognizable melodies with an infectious pleasure. A concert by Monty Alexander is a musical joyride. When he’s here in April with Hassan Shakur on the bass and Herlin Riley on drums, we’re in for a treat!

Rayannah Kroeker is a vocalist in the Jazz Studies program at the U of M, and the force behind the upcoming “Jazz for Humanity” benefit concert.

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