Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander has built a durable career with a jazz piano style that, like those of many of the best musicians in the jazz genre, incorporates a wide variety of influences. Over more than four decades of performing and recording, Alexander has drawn on modern jazz trends, pop styles, and most recently the music of his native Caribbean in a personal fusion. During his distinctive performances, he sometimes leaves the piano bench to strum the piano strings with his fingers or to play the melodica—a breath-blown keyboard instrument that is rarely heard in jazz. "The piano, to me, is a vehicle for connecting to other human beings," Alexander said in a statement quoted on his website. "I'm very open to all forms of music. I'm not a bebop musician. I'm not a calypso musician, I'm not a reggae musician. I'm a musician who loves it all."
Alexander was born Montgomery Bernard on June 6, 1944, in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. He was the first in his household to try out the old piano his parents had bought, and starting at age four or five, Alexander taught himself boogie woogie patterns on the instrument. Largely self-taught, he took some lessons as a child and became comfortable accompanying musicians in various styles. By the time he was in his teens, he began to frequent Kingston's resort hotels on nights when visiting musicians were in town; the bands of performers such as Louis Armstrong and Nat "King" Cole took a liking to the youngster and asked him to sit in. Alexander repaid the favor to Cole in 1991 when he worked with Cole's daughter Natalie on the Grammy-winning Cole tribute album Unforgettable. He was also a fan of Ray Charles, who brought his rootsy feel to a series of straight-ahead jazz albums in the late 1950s.
The teenage Alexander formed a band called Monty and the Cyclones, and found work as a session musician at Kingston's soon-to-be-famous Studio One with legendary producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. Monty and the Cyclones scored several Jamaican hits between 1958 and 1960, but Alexander's role in Jamaica's burgeoning popular music scene was cut short when he moved to Miami with his mother in 1961. Alexander immediately headed for the local jazz clubs, and once again he found support from fellow musicians. "When I first came to America, to Miami, and tried to get into clubs and play while I was still underage, the American musicians welcomed me," he told Terry Perkins of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It was a big community of wonderful cats, and it's that way everywhere with jazz musicians. There's a camaraderie. And I try to pass along that same feeling to audiences when I play."
Making his way to Las Vegas, Alexander signed on with bandleader Art Mooney. His music business breakthrough came when he was spotted during a gig by vocalist Frank Sinatra and his friend, New York club owner Jilly Rizzo. Soon Alexander had steady work at Jilly's, Rizzo's club in New York City, often backing Sinatra, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, or any of a host of other stars who held forth at the club during that golden age of jazz in New York. He remained at Jilly's from 1963 to 1965. Alexander honed his own piano style, taking cues from the virtuoso Oscar Peterson, the warm, ballad-oriented Erroll Garner, and the innovative Ahmad Jamal. He began working with bassist Ray Brown, and for much of his career had a preference for the trio format.
With the help of fellow pianist Les McCann, the 21-year-old Alexander landed a recording contract and made his LP debut in 1965 with two albums on the Pacific Jazz label, Alexander the Great and Spunky. It was the beginning of a prolific recording career that saw the pianist release one or two albums during each of the next 40 years. Alexander drew on a diverse collection of materials, including originals and popular songs and, on his 1967 Zing! album, classical composer Frédéric Chopin's Nocturne in E flat. He recorded for many different labels, recording for MPS during the 1970s and Concord Jazz in the 1980s. Many of his releases were drawn from live performances, not only in the United States but in Europe. Alexander was a frequent guest at Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival beginning in 1976.
Alexander began experimenting with the fusion of Caribbean music and jazz in the late 1970s, occasionally adding steel drums to his band or featuring Jamaican ska and reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin on his recordings. On a visit to Jamaica in the mid-1990s he spent time with a group of old friends and began to think about how he could put jazz together with the popular Jamaican forms he had grown up with-a fusion that, despite the various tropical accents that had been added to jazz over the years, remained quite unusual. "I'd been functioning in the so-called jazz world with great musicians," Alexander told Bob Young of the Boston Herald, "and I wanted to go home, bring out some home vibrations which are still deep inside my life and my spirit."
For the Record …
Born Montgomery Bernard on June 6, 1944, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Led band Monty and the Cyclones, Kingston, Jamaica, 1958–60; moved to Miami, FL, 1961; began performing there and in Las Vegas, NV; residence at Jilly's club, New York City, 1963–65; released debut album, Alexander the Great, 1965; recorded more than 40 albums; frequently appeared at Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, 1976–; released reggae-jazz fusion Yard Movement, 1995; performed and recorded in Caribbean-jazz fusion idiom, 1990s–.
Addresses: Management—c/o Caterina Zapponi, P.O. Box 354, Radio City Station, New York, NY 10101-0354. Website—Monty Alexander Official Website: http://www.montyalexander.com.
Performing on piano over reggae bass lines, Alexander employed various approaches to the creation of his new Jamaican jazz fusion. His first full album in this vein was 1995's Yard Movement, which featured Ranglin on guitar and a host of Alexander originals. "Fans of hardcore roots reggae may find what Alexander and Ranglin are doing here a little too refined and smooth," wrote Steve Leggett of All Music Guide, "but from a jazz perspective, these cuts exhibit an edgy punch that points toward a refreshing synthesis." The 2001 follow-up Goin' Yard (the word "yard" connotes "home" in Jamaican dialect) picked up where Yard Movement left off, but Alexander also tried out other Jamaican ideas. The 1999 album Stir It Up was a jazz tribute to reggae icon Bob Marley, and the following year Alexander released Monty Meets Sly and Robbie, an innovative recording on which he performed with the hugely popular Jamaican rhythm duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.
Alexander's concert schedule remained busy as he entered his seventh decade, and in 2005 he traveled to Marley's Tuff Gong studio in Kingston and worked with Jamaican session musicians on a second album of Marley material, Concrete Jungle: The Music of Bob Marley. In concerts the following year, Alexander deepened his exploration of Jamaican music still further, expressing a desire to incorporate the pre-reggae Jamaican folk style called mento into his music and performing a concert with Jamaican banjoist and singer Carlton James. By this time, Alexander's unique style encompassed several layers of Jamaican music and its interaction with the outside world. "For me, it's all good," he observed to Zan Stewart of the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger. "It's what you do with a song that makes it jazz. You put a personal stamp on it."
Alexander the Great, Pacific Jazz, 1965.
Monty Alexander, PolyGram, 1965.
Zing!, RCA, 1967.
This Is Monty Alexander, Verve, 1969.
Taste of Freedom, MGM, 1970.
We've Only Just Begun, MPS, 1971.
Now Is the Time, Pausa, 1974.
Live! Montreux Alexander, MPS, 1976.
Jamento: The Monty Alexander 7, Pablo, 1978.
Facets, Concord Jazz, 1979.
Ivory & Steel, Concord Jazz, 1980.
Trio, Concord Jazz, 1980.
So What, Black & Blue, 1980.
Triple Treat, vols. 1-3, Concord Jazz, 1982–87.
Jamboree: Monty Alexander's Ivory & Steel, Concord Jazz, 1988.
Caribbean Circle, Chesky, 1992.
Yard Movement, Island, 1995.
To the Ends of the Earth, Concord Jazz, 1996.
Echoes of Jilly's, Concord Jazz, 1996.
Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley, Telarc, 1999.
Monty Meets Sly & Robbie, Telarc, 2000.
Goin' Yard, Telarc, 2001.
My America, Telarc, 2002.
Triple Scoop, Concord Jazz, 2002.
Impressions in Blue, Telarc, 2003.
Straight Ahead, Concord Jazz, 2003.
Rocksteady, Telarc, 2004.
Steaming Hot, Concord Jazz, 2004.
Live at the Iridium, Telarc, 2005.
Solo, Kingston, 2005.
Concrete Jungle: The Music of Bob Marley, Telarc, 2006.
Birmingham Post (Birmingham, England), June 28, 2000, p. 10.
Boston Herald, April 13, 2001, p. 22.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 12, 2000, p. 28.
New York Times, April 27, 2006, p. E2.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 31, 2006, p. E7.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 15, 2004, p. 26.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), April 15, 2005, p. 25.
Variety, August 19, 2002, p. 9.
"Monty Alexander," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com. (June 27, 2006)
Monty Alexander Official Website, http://www.monty-alexander.com. (June 27, 2006)
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