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Before & After: Monty Alexander

The Jamaican pianist listens for life

Monty Alexander

Jamaican-born pianist and bandleader Monty Alexander is an old-school road warrior who still loves to rock the house with hard swing and deep island grooves. Though he has good ears and strong opinions, Alexander avoids theoretical analysis when listening to music, concentrating instead on feelings, emotions and experiences. While setting up, we talked about his growing up with mento music and American popular song in Kingston; his love for Louis Armstrong, Lord Kitchener and New Orleans R&B; and his big break in Miami, where he was discovered by Frank Sinatra and Jilly Rizzo. In recent years, Alexander has led his well-traveled jazz trio, as well as a reggae band. His latest release is Calypso Blues: The Songs of Nat King Cole (Chesky).

1. Nat “King” Cole

“Calypso Blues” (from The Nat King Cole Story, Capitol). Cole, vocal; Jack Costanzo, conga. Recorded in 1949.

BEFORE: [chuckles] Nat. I’ve heard this so many times, and I knew Jack Costanzo very well. The timing of that recording came close to the time that Harry Belafonte did his calypso album. [Ed. note: Belafonte’s Calypso was released in 1956.] Nat was not a stranger to seeking popularity. He was somebody who could do anything he wanted. He was a natural. He loved music and he loved rhythms from the island. Who on earth would record a song with just a man beating on a conga, especially someone like Nat who was such a swinging musician? And he played so much piano, so that tells you about Nat’s daring as well as his talent. I knew all these songs, what we called mento songs, and he was a beloved voice in our home. When I was 10 years old I walked down the street and imitated him because of the girl I had a crush on [sings “Too Young”]. Louis Armstrong also recorded a calypso [several years later] called “High Society.” So they were my ultimate heroes, Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole. I saw them in Kingston when I was about 11 years old. Incredible. They were artists as well as entertainers. They had that thing, that show-biz thing. So you just played a man who’s everything to me. He went for the brass ring, and he got it because everybody loved him.

2. Eldar

“Daily Living” (from Virtue, Sony Masterworks Jazz). Eldar Djangirov, piano, keyboards; Armando Gola, bass; Ludwig Afonso, drums. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: I’m speechless. Those are amazing musicians playing amazing music. And they’re operating on a system I don’t really know much about. There’s sophisticated, phenomenal technique, but also the skill and creative talent for playing in different time signatures. It’s astounding to hear and I appreciate it very much, but I don’t live in that world. I just shook my head and said, “Wow, what was that?” It might not be something I know how to play or want to play, but it’s very beautiful.

AFTER: I knew Eldar when he was 14 years old. He’s playing on another level now, like the man from another planet. He could have gone down the Art Tatum road or the Bud Powell road. He’s a multitalented young man. I met his mom and I saw that old-school family dynamic and I knew he would go great places. I haven’t seen him in a long time but I keep hearing little bits and pieces of him and about him. And whenever I hear him I’m astounded. But this is a different Eldar to the Eldar of five years ago. So who knows where he’ll be in 10 years-another planet? [laughs] Some guys sound like they play once in a while, but this guy plays all day. He’s brilliant. Thanks for playing that.

3. Fred Hersch

“Insensatez” (from Fred Hersch Plays Jobim, Sunnyside). Hersch, piano. Released in 2009.

BEFORE: Really, really good. I enjoyed that. It’s somebody who loves harmony and paints a beautiful picture. I feel this beautiful painting unfolding with a beautiful touch. Jobim would love it. I don’t think in terms of chords or keys or analyzing it. So when I hear that, it’s just flying and floating in the air. That person don’t need a bass or a drum. The touch, it’s oozing like caramel dripping.

AFTER: Fred Hersch is all right with me. I met him once and I always hear about him doing this and doing that. He’s a mighty talented guy. This is beautiful. Mr. Fred, my hat is off to you. I have to pick this up. Complicated and slick is fine, but I love beauty.

The rest of this column appears in the print and digital editions of the January/February issue of JazzTimes.

Originally Published

Larry Appelbaum

Larry Appelbaum is a recently retired Jazz Reference Specialist in the Music Division at the Library of Congress, where he discovered the tapes of the 1957 Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane concert at Carnegie Hall that were subsequently issued by Blue Note Records in 2005. He is a longtime radio host on WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C.