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Monty Alexander


Jan 16, 2018 – 8:00 PM

510 Embarcadero West
Oakland, CA 94607 Map

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Fifty-five years after he moved to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica, his home town, pianist Monty Alexander is an American classic, touring the world relentlessly with various projects, delighting a global audience drawn to his vibrant personality and soulful message. His spirited conception is one informed by the timeless verities: endless melody-making, effervescent grooves, sophisticated voicings, a romantic spirit, and a consistent predisposition, as Alexander accurately states, to build up the heat and kick up a storm. In the course of any given performance, Alexander applies those aesthetics to repertoire spanning a broad range of jazz and Jamaican musical expressionthe American songbook and the blues, gospel and bebop, calypso and reggae. Like his eternal inspiration, Erroll Garner, Alexandercited as the fifth greatest jazz pianist ever in The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time (Hal Leonard Publishing) and mentioned in Robert Doerschuks 88: The Giants of Jazz Pianogives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into while also communicating the message to the squarest civilian.Born on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Alexander was playing Christmas carols by ear at 4, entertaining neighbors and relatives by 5, taking his first piano lessons at 6. He resisted formal instruction, but still, growing up in Kingston, absorbed all the musical flavors that comprise his mature sonic palette. I soaked up everythingthe calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung, he recalls. When Alexander was 9, his father, a Kingston merchant, brought him to hear and play for the legendary pianist Eddie Heywood. At 10, he saw Nat King Cole play at Kingstons Carib Theater, the same venue where, at 13, he heard a concert featuring Louis Armstrong.I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music, Alexander says. One was not more valuable than the other. Boogie-woogie was important to me, too. Id sit at the piano and think I was the Count Basie Orchestra or a rhythm-and-blues band. I automatically reached for anything I wanted to play on the piano, and just played it. It didnt come with practicing. It came with playing, playing, playing all the time.By 14, Alexander began to display his skills in local clubs. Soon thereafter, he made his first recordings, both as leader of a group called Monty and the Cyclones, and as a sideman for such legendary producers as Ken Khouri (Federal Records), Duke Reade (Treasure Isle), and Clement Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. These early sessions for Federal, which Alexander describes as not calypso music, but the beginning of Ska, included such subsequently famous aspirants of the day as trombonist Don Drummond, tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso and guitarist Ernest Ranglin.But after moving to Miami with his mother in 1961, Alexander would sublimate Jamaican roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1963, he was ensconced in New York City, with a steady gig at Jillys, the eponymous West 52nd Street piano bar owned by Frank Sinatras close friend Jilly Rizzo. There, for the next four years, Alexanders trio swung until the wee hours of the morning for Sinatra, a mix of celebrity entertainers, tough guys, thrill seekers, and such iconic jazzfolk as Miles Davis, Count Basie, Milt Jackson, and Roy Haynes. As the 1960s progressed, he also held regular gigs at Mintons (the iconic Harlem lounge where bebop gestated) and at the Playboy Club, where he met and became friends with Quincy Jones. During these years, he also met Ray Brown and piano giant Oscar Peterson, who recommended Alexander to Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the proprietor of Germanys MPS label, for which he made a dozen records between 1971 and 1985.Alexanders discography already included five leader LPs when he made his first MPS recording in 1971, with bassist Eugene Wright, drummer Duffy Jackson and conguero Montego Joe. By 1977, when Alexander made the tenth of his twelve sessions for MPS (Estate), he was internationally recognized as an upper-echelon master, deeply influenced by Browns lets party all night approach to the piano trio function, as documented on two early 70s dates with Wright and drummer Bobby Durham (Weve Only Just Begun and Perception) and another two with bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton (The Way It Is and Montreux Alexander), then rising stars, with whom he spent, by his estimate, 300 days a year on the road during their 1976-1978 association.On most of his other MPS recordings, Alexander shared solo and ensemble duties with Ranglin, including the still-sampled groove albums Rass and Cobilimbo, on which he explicitly explored Jamaican folk roots. He did the same on Jamento (1978), his second of three recordings for Norman Granzs Pablo label, which introduced his ivory and steel concept of marrying steel pan (Vince Charles) and hand-drums (Larry McDonald) to whatever bass player and drummer I had at the time. He would repeat this instrumentation on the 1980 album Ivory and Steel (Concord), with Othello Molineaux on pans and Bobby Thomas on congas, and again in 1988 on Jamboree (Concord).That said, most of Alexanders 15 Concord recordings between 1978 and 1996 presented him in swinging trio contextsfive dates on which Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis reprised the roles they played with Oscar Petersons drummerless trio of the 50s; effervescent sessions with Brown and drummers Hamilton or Frank Gant; a reunion with Clayton and Hamilton; a meeting with Clayton and ex-Peterson drummer Ed Thigpen titled The River that addressed spirituals and hymns (it was played at Jilly Rizzos funeral); another project on which bassist John Patitucci and drummer Troy Davis flow through repertoire that Alexander played at Jillys Bar. During these years, he also documented an inspiring solo recital at Maybeck Recital Hall for Concord; conversational duo encounters with Ranglin in 1980 and with Clayton in 1985 for MPS; and an impeccable one-off with bassist Niels-Henning rsted Pedersen and drummer Grady Tate for Soul Note.Caribbean Circle (Chesky), from 1992, and Yard Movement (Island Jamaica Jazz), from 1996, previewed a series of albums for Telarc on which Alexander plays Anglophone Caribbean styles with musicians hed known since his teens. (Island Records President Chris Blackwell created the Island Jamaica Jazz division specifically to release Yard Movement and an Alexander-produced Ranglin album called Below The Bass Line, which relaunched Ranglins career.) Yard Movement represents a musical turning point, marking Alexanders first attempt to play acoustic grand piano with a straight-out reggae ensemble incorporating electric guitar and electric bass.With Telarc, Alexander made further forays into this hybrid genre on a collaboration with drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare titled Monty Meets Sly and Robbie and on explorations of Bob Marleys music titled Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle, while addressing a broader Jamaican spectrum on Goin Yard and Playin Yard. All the while, Alexander was probing more deeply into mento, Jamaicas indigenous calypso. Descended from the French quadrille music to which English colonists danced in the nineteenth century, mento evolved into what Alexander calls a deep country Jamaican thing with African retentionsa banjo, a rhumba box that is akin to a bass kalimba, hand drums, and often harmonica, fiddle or pennywhistle. It spread throughout the island, and, as the 20th century unfolded, cross-pollinated with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, evolving into Ska.I was bummed out after it ended with John and Jeff because Id gotten used to that precision, that projection, Alexander said. Although other people were fine and good, no one came close to that. So I spent more time in Jamaica. Its simple music, two chordsbut life is in those two chords.As Alexanders explorations progressed, he found it ever more complicated to convene a single ensemble in which he could satisfactorily coalesce things that reflect my heritage as an English-speaking Caribbean person and his love for hard swinging jazz. I would have a trio of jazz masters, and when Id want to play something that reflected Jamaica, whether calypso or Bob Marley, I couldnt get that thing because thats not what they do, Alexander said. Conversely, the Jamaican guys didnt relate to the jazz experience. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to share my two loves, which is one love, to coin Bobs phrase.Midway through the 00s, Alexander began to resolve the issue with a project dubbed Harlem-Kingston Express, first documented on the Grammy-nominated 2011 CD, Harlem-Kingston Express: LIVE, and its 2014 Soultrain Award nominated followup, Harlem Kingston Express 2: The River Rolls On, both on Motma. The band on both recordings is a double trioHassan Shakur on contrabass and either Herlin Riley or Obed Calvaire on drums, and Jamaicans Glen Browne or Courtney Panton on electric bass and Karl Wright on drums. It fulfills me, because its my own life experience, Alexander says. Its like Barack Obama music. We are all cut from the same cloth.In live performance with Harlem-Kingston Express, Alexander spontaneously orchestrates, switching-off from straight-ahead to two-worlds-meet. Im captain of the ship, and everything is freewheeling, he says. A boxing aficionado since his earlier days in Jamaica, he offers the sweet science as a metaphor. Its like you go into the ring, and you throw the left, you throw the rightbut whatever you throw, throw it right, he says. Theres almost always some kind of jet taking off when I transfer the music to one rhythm or the other. Whether its 4/4 straightahead acoustic or a rhythm from Jamaica, its cathartic. Its a bring-people-together thing, and the musicians enjoy each other. You can see the camaraderie, no matter who Ive got. Its constantly, lets do it this way, lets do it that way. It never gets old.Meanwhile, Alexander continues to apply his creative, charismatic sensibility to the trio context, as demonstrated on Uplift and Uplift 2 (JLP), a pair of deep-swinging navigations of the American Songbook with Shakur on bass and Riley on drums on the former and either Clayton or Shakur on bass and either Hamilton or Frits Landesbergen on drums on the latter. It follows Alexanders 2008 trio dates, Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole and The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett both on Chesky. Also in 2008, Bennett tapped Alexander as the featured pianist on A Swinging Christmas, with the Count Basie Orchestra.In our home, Nat Cole was the voice of America, says Alexander, who describes the Cole and Armstrong concerts to which his father took him in the 1950s as a transformational moment. In 1991, he worked with Coles daughter, Natalie Cole, on Unforgettable, her 7-Grammy Award winning tribute album to her father. Other career highlights include a performance of George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue with a full orchestra under the direction of Bobby McFerrin at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, and recording the piano track on four selections of the soundtrack of Bird, Clint Eastwoods Charlie Parker biopic, Clint Eastwoods Charlie Parker biopic, and playing on Quincy Jones For Love Of Ivy film score.Alexander would also perform on Jones 1970 Smackwater Jack album, sharing piano duties with Herbie Hancock, and on classic albums with Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry live at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival. He was a member of the first iteration of Gillespies United Nations Orchestra during the middle 1980s, and played a memorable engagement with Sonny Rollins in 1990 on the Hudson River Jazz Cruise in New York City.In August 2000, the Jamaican government designated Alexander Commander in the Order of Distinction for outstanding services to Jamaica as a worldwide music ambassador. In 2015, the great modern pianist Donald Vega released With Respect To Monty, which included his interpretations of seven Alexander compositions. Furthermore, 2016 will mark the seventh edition of the namesake Monty Alexander Jazz Festival in Easton, Maryland, for which he has served as Artistic Director and perennial performer every Labor Day weekend since 2010.I grew up learning Nat Coles songs, without knowing the titles, even before I knew about Sinatra, Alexander continues. My awareness of his piano playing came later; it was just that smooth voice. When I was little, I confused him with Gene AutryI was always connecting one thing with another: Wait a minute, that sounded like that. Thats why, even now, its one world of music for me. I try to remove all the lines. Even though I do this thing and that thing and the other thing, at the end of the day its Monty Alexander. I still seem to make people happy.
$27 - $60
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In a career spanning five decades, pianist Monty Alexander has built a reputation exploring and bridging the worlds of American jazz, popular song, and the music of his native Jamaica, finding in each a sincere spirit of musical expression. In the process, he has performed and recorded with artists from every corner of the musical universe and entertainment world: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Quincy Jones, Ernest Ranglin, Barbara Hendricks, Bill Cosby, Bobby McFerrin, Sly Dunbar, and Robbie Shakespeare, among others.

Born on D-Day (June 6, 1944) and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, he took his first piano lessons at age six, although he is largely self-taught. As a teenager, he witnessed concerts by Louis Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole at Kingston’s Carib Theater. These artists had a profound effect on Alexander’s aspirations. He formed Monty and the Cyclones in the late 1950s and also recorded on sessions with the musicians who would catapult Jamaican music to international recognition as The Skatalites (Bob Marley’s first backing band).

Alexander and his family came to the United States at the end of 1961. Less than two years later, while playing in Las Vegas with Art Mooney’s orchestra, he caught the eye of New York City club owner Jilly Rizzo and his friend, Frank Sinatra. Rizzo hired the young pianist to work in his club, Jilly’s, where he accompanied Sinatra and others. There he met Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who hired him and eventually introduced him to former Charlie Parker collaborator and legendary bassist Ray Brown. Alexander recorded and performed with the two jazz giants on many occasions. Jazz’s greatest luminaries welcomed Alexander to their “musical fraternity” in the mid-1960s. Among these earliest enthusiasts for his playing were none other than Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Miles Davis.

To this day, Alexander maintains an active touring schedule, from intimate jazz clubs to concert halls and jazz festivals around the globe. His collaborations span multiple genres, styles, and generations. His projects have been as varied as assisting Natalie Cole in her tribute album to her father, Nat “King” Cole in 1991 (the resulting album, Unforgettable, won seven Grammy awards), performing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” under the direction of Bobby McFerrin at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, and recording the piano track for the film score of Clint Eastwood’s Bird, a movie about the life of jazz titan Charlie Parker.

In August 2000, the Jamaican government awarded Monty Alexander the title of Commander in the Order of Distinction for outstanding services to Jamaica as a worldwide music ambassador. In Hal Leonard’s 2005 book The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time, Alexander was listed among the top five Jazz pianists of all time.

With the invitation and encouragement of Wynton Marsalis, Alexander conceived and directed the acclaimed program Lords of the West Indies at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2008, broadcast nationally on BETJ. Alexander returns to Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Fall 2009 with a new program Harlem Kingston Express.

As a leader, Monty Alexander has recorded over 60 albums to date. His 1976 Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival performance with drummer Jeff Hamilton and bassist John Clayton has become one of the most celebrated live recordings in contemporary jazz. His most recent albums on the Telarc label include trio sessions, such as Impressions in Blue, and the live concert recording Goin’ Yard. In the late summer of 2005, Alexander traveled to Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, and teamed up with top Jamaican session players to record Concrete Jungle, a set of twelve Bob Marley compositions reinterpreted through Alexander’s jazz piano-centered arrangements. The resulting union of musical perspectives digs deep into the Marley legend and brings together the two worlds that Alexander most treasures, building the musical bridges that are the very essence of his craft. As a testament to his versatility, The Good Life, on Chesky Records is a collection of songs written and popularized by one of his all time favorite artists and good friends, Tony Bennett. His current release on Chesky is Calypso Blues, a tribute to his hero Nat Cole.

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