Jazz Legend Monty Alexander at the Howard Friday
Legendary jazz pianist Monty Alexander is in town Friday night at 8 p.m. for what’s billed as a 70th birthday celebration and concert at the renovated Howard Theatre.
Naturally, when we start to talk on the phone, I congratulate him on his birthday, which was officially June 6 and allow that I’m a little older than he is.
“Yeah?” he responds good naturedly. “How old are you? Ninety seven?”
Right away, after laughing a little, I get the sense that this might not be your everyday interview with a jazz legend. Indeed, it turns into a free-wheeling talk about this and that, Duke Ellington and Jamaica, starting out in New York at Jilly’s, which was owned by a guy named Jilly Rizzo, about playing at Blues Alley in Georgetown in the 1970s and today, about seeing Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, when he was a teenager, about the connection between reggae and jazz, about B movie cowboy stars like Wild Bill Elliott and Tom Mix, about Errol Flynn and Clint Eastwood and what life experience means to playing jazz.
This and that, indeed.
What’s probably more important than the 70th birthday celebration aspect of Alexander's concert is its other two titles: “Two Worlds, One Love” and “My Jamaica to Jazz,” all of which are expressions of two of his latest albums, “Harlem-Kingston Express,” volumes one and two. Also, there will be musicians playing with him that accentuate that connection and ride, such as Tony Rebel, Bob Andy, Duane Stephenson, Etienne Charles and Wayne Escoffery.
“It’ll be great, you wait and see,” Alexander said. “We’re doing the concert at B.B. King’s in New York the night before, and this is going to be even better.”
Alexander is a great believer in the idea of life experience informing art, about life as an improvisation of the jazz kind, and that jazz had in some ways a kind of glory time because of some incomparable stars, performers and musicians who came to the jazz life armed with the kind of often rough-and-tumble, even tragic life experience from which they drew their musical inspiration. We’re talking about anyone from Louis Armstrong—“Now there, there was a great musician," Alexander exclaimed. "He was something”— to Duke Ellington, “Bird” (Charlie Parker), Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie. “All of these guys”, Alexander gestured. “Plus, they had charisma to burn.”
“I’m trying to make that connection to what I grew up with." Alexander said. "I saw many great jazz artists when I was a kid in Jamaica, and when I came to Miami, starting out. Lot of them inspired me. My life inspired me.”
Some folks might be a little leery of the prospect of a 70th birthday. Alexander doesn’t sound like the type. He’s doing some of his liveliest, most interesting work these days, especially the Harlem-Kingston Express albums and tours. “You don’t stop," he said. "You keep learning. You keep doing. You keep playing, you know. You get up there, and you embrace it.”
As Alexander's biography indicates, his career spans five decades and is notable for collaborations, working with other high-flying jazz luminaries and dipping freely, joyously into other genres of music. One critic has pointed out that there’s hardly any music that Alexander doesn’t like. “It’s never one thing,” he said. “You can draw from so many different forms of music.” He helped Natalie Cole with her Grammy-Award-winning tribute album “with” her late father Nat King Cole, worked with Sinatra, provided the piano track for Clint Eastwood’s “Bird”, an astonishing film biography of Charlie Parker, is listed by Hal Leonard as one of the top five jazz pianists of all time (about which he demurs), and worked on 12 Bob Marley composed pieces and filled with rich jazz piano arrangements. One of his albums, “The Good Life,” is a collection of songs written and made popular by the ageless Tony Bennett.
The Harlem-Kingston Express albums have been on top of the jazz charts for two years now.
Viewing some videos of old and new efforts by Alexander is to get a good look at a way cool master, an embracer who makes things look both lively and effortless, intense and easy. Listen, really listen to his version of Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”—it has the lightest, most tender feel to it, or catch him doing “Satin Doll” on the piano, lightly, very cool like champagne touched by deep love and a little whiskey, the man himself sporting a thick Afro. Look at him now, joining a whole band on stage, jumping on the stage, directing everybody. Here comes a trumpet solo. There he is on the piano, high energy, his hair a whiter shade now.
You can see and hear in that voice of his over the phone that he gets deep into anything that catches his fancy. For some reason, the subject of old B-movie cowboy stars came up, and you could just hear him getting caught up in it. “Tom Mix, Lash LaRue, Gene Autry, oh, man," he said. "Wild Bill Elliott, man, don’t get me started. We’re going to be on the phone all day long.” He had a similar attitude about one of this writer’s childhood heroes: the swashbuckling movie star who died young and very old at the age of 50.
Just take a look at some of the tracks, just for the titles of the Harem-Kingston albums—“Freddie Freeloader,” “No Woman No Cry,” “Redemption Song,” “Strawberry Hill,” "The Harder They Fall,” “Day-O,” "Sweet Georgia Brown,” “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown,” “High Heel Sneakers” and “Hurricane Come and Gone.” You can see him sifting, mixing, bringing onboard, sliding through and re-arranging all kinds of music, all kinds of people. Moving right along.