Monty Alexander: The Montreux Years

Examples from 1993-2016 of the pianist who coloured a core bebop and swing vocabulary with flavours from his Jamaican roots

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The Montreux Jazz Festival was launched in 1967, with the support of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, founders of Atlantic Records. Monty Alexander first appeared there in 1976 and would return 22 times over the subsequent 40 years. Initially regarded as an Oscar Peterson imitator (OP affectionately called him “my little West Indian counterpart”), Alexander soon emerged as a major innovator who blended a variety of musical influences – including reggae, gospel and boogie-woogie – into his work.

The nine selections on this CD (some of which have been previously issued) are supplemented by an extra track (The Pawnbroker) on LP. On The Serpent, recorded in 1995, Monty – after a flamboyant opening – moves into a hypnotic fast-paced solo. His own verdict was that “if the performance has impact, it’s because it’s coming out of my spirit – I’m playing on a fantastic piano and the audience is with me.”

In 2016, fronting the Harlem Kingston Express, he delivered a blistering performance of Nat Adderley’s Work Song, with a thundering solo from drummer Jason Brown. Acquainted with the Adderley brothers, Monty explained: “When I play Work Song I can close my eyes and Nat is there.” The three-part Hurricane Come And Gone (an Alexander original), performed in 2016 by an expanded Express ensemble, recreates a momentous seasonal event in Jamaican history, and features an impressive bass solo by Hassan Shakur. Lead guitarist Andy Bassford successfully recreates the howling storm before Monty restores calm.

Ahmad Jamal’s Night Mist Blues (recorded in 2014 at the Montreux Jazz Club) has Alexander coaxing the sonorities of the tune at varying tempos, concluding with apposite quotes from Ellington’s Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me. Linstead Market (1993) a traditional folk tune, is transformed by the trio into a delightful calypso, with a voice-over from Monty. Introducing a sensitive rendition of Crying (by Trinidadian Leslie “Boogie” Sharpe), Alexander dedicates it “to those who are less fortunate than ourselves”. The medley of Bob Marley’s songs – No Woman No Cry and Get Up Stand Up – is a jazz-reggae conflation that is both reflective and haunting. Renewal, another Alexander original, is a gentle multi-layered piece, but with a pulsating bass line. 

The concluding A Nod To Bob (1995) is the longest (11.58) and most exciting track. Alexander’s fleet-fingered homage to Marley passes through several moods and phases, before settling into an extended ride-out, with a rock-solid and remorseless rhythm section driving an impromptu mini jam session (during which Alexander briefly plays organ). It finally ends with a Basie-derived “plink plink” flourish. Exhilarating and staggering, and the rapturous audience response is no surprise.

Informative notes by David Sheppard, photos of Alexander and some of his cohorts plus excellent recorded sound enhance a signal addition to the ongoing BMG Montreux Jazz Festival Series. To adopt a well-known phrase, this really is the Full Monty.

Discography
The Serpent; Work Song; Hurricane Come And Gone; Night Mist Blues; Linstead Market; Crying; No Woman No Cry/Get Up Stand Up (Medley); Renewal; A Nod To Bob (78.08)
Alexander (p, org) on all tracks with personnel including Ed Thigpen (d); Ernest Ranglin, Andy Bassford (g), Dwight Dawes (kyb); Carlton Messam, Hassan Shakur (b); Obed Calvaire (d); Ron Blake (ts). Montreux, 1993-2016.
Montreux Jazz Festival BMG CATS573CD