Monday, September 14, 2015

Monty Alexander at the Detroit Jazz Festival 2015

I met Monty Alexander on Woodward Avenue, DJF 2015.

On Labour Day 2015, Mary and I got a chance to see, hear and meet the legendary jazz pianist Monty Alexander on the streets of Detroit, where he was performing a brilliant combination of jazz, reggae, ska, mento (and more) at the 36th annual Detroit Jazz Festival. He brought the Harlem Kingston Express with him. Officially, the band is a combination of a jazz trio and a reggae quartet but what do these words even mean when all the players are virtuosos, and at the centre is Monty Alexander, who can riff on any note, at any time, and get back into the groove and always have it all make perfect sense?

At a post-show interview in one of the tents lining Woodward Avenue, Monty answered questions posed by Michael G. Nastos from WEMU radio (outta Ypsilanti), and members of the audience. He talked about his musical education (he taught himself how to "play with the piano" from the age of three), about his early influences, about the musicians he performed with, about the record companies he worked with in the 1960s. He had many fascinating stories - like others in the audience, we took some notes. The most important thing he said, I don't I think I'll ever forget.

Monty said that wherever he goes, and he emphasized that this is true for almost any musician raised in Jamaica, they carry with them wherever they go, in their blood, the rhythm of the island - and that rhythm is mento, the folk songs that they grew up singing and playing. This is a significant statement. There's something very powerful about mento music and Monty Alexander knows it. If you listen to mento, you'll hear it too. It is Jamaica. It's the first big musical key to a very musical place.

His repeated refrain, from the main stage and again in the interview tent, was his love for his home island, with such a rich musical heritage. He grew up surrounded by great musicians playing great music. He spoke highly of the legendary Skatalites Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, and the immortal Don Drummond. He really lit up when he spoke about his friend Ernest Ranglin, the great jazz/ska/reggae/mento guitarist with whom he's made so many fantastic records. And when the interviewer called Harry Belafonte's music "calypso", Monty pointed out that most of the songs that Belafonte recorded on his million-selling album Calypso were mentos from Jamaica.

It's a distinction that must be studied to be understood, but it can be summed up (rather obliquely) in the conundrum that mento singers and players in the fifties called their music calypso "to avoid confusion". The tourists loved the music, which they mistook for calypso, and no one corrected them. The confusion persists to this day, and I may be as mixed-up about it as anyone. (More on this conundrum in a future blog post.)

At the Detroit Jazz Festival, Monty Alexander described the thrill of growing up at a time when he was able to see so many famous and influential American jazz artists perform in Kingston. They'd visit Jamaica when they toured the Caribbean and South America. What they were doing inspired him as a young person, a really young person. As a preteen, and early teenager, seeing Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole made him want to emulate them.

By his late teens, he and his family were in America, where he worked in jazz clubs, first in Miami and soon all over the country, constantly playing. He heard, met, and worked with so many of the greats, like Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington. He spoke with gratitude that he was able to steadily develop and flourish, and he credited the older musicians around him, whose personal references helped him along the way:  e.g. Frank Sinatra, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown and many others.

The interviewer, Nastos, briefed us on Monty's recordings on Pablo, Concord, and MPS, particularly mentioning the quality of all MPS output - excellent recordings on ultra-durable vinyl that still retain their magic. Monty told us that Oscar Peterson recommended him to MPS, and the sessions were recorded in the living room of label boss Hans Brunner-Schwer, an intimate and relaxed atmosphere. Someone in the audience asked him about the differences between recording back then and the process today. He loved that question, and his answer was more nuanced than this summation: advancements in recording technology are a complete wonder, but many of today's producers rely too much on technological "tricks". Sometimes that can cost the music its soul. Dedicated musicianship is the best foundation. (Spoken like a true jazz musician.)

Another audience member asked about the Jamaican trumpeter Dizzy Reece. I don't know much about Dizzy Reece, beyond that he attended the Alpha Boys School in Kingston, where so many fantastic Jamaican musicians trained, and that he made a really fine album called Blues in Trinity (1958). I'm not sure I understood Monty's answer 100%, but I think he said that Dizzy was trying to distance himself from his Jamaican heritage at around the same time that American jazz musicians were delving into Caribbean sounds, citing Charlie Parker's version of "Sly Mongoose" (!) Monty Alexander, whatever else he is doing, never turns away from the Caribbean. He celebrates his Jamaican heritage every time he plays. And that is "upfull and right".

By honouring his roots and, as he said, following his parents' advice to "stay out of trouble", Monty Alexander has built a brilliant career spanning more than 50 years of music. Humble, funny, and friendly, he could've talked for hours. He's a font of music history, who remains totally tuned in.

The entire time that Monty played and talked, I sat there smiling from ear to ear, like the other dude in this video:

Monty Alexander: Jamento (Pablo, 1978)

Monty Alexander pon de DJF golf cart, Jefferson Avenue, Detroit.

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