Monty Alexander Speaks
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The conversation began at 10:00am July 14, 2003 and took of at a breakneck pace. Alexander needs little prompting to express himself, and the pleasant sound of his speech is only matched by the compelling nature of its content. Speaking first, and at some length, about Alexander’s friendship with the late bass icon Ray Brown, we then turned our attention to Alexander’s recent projects, future plans, and a plethora of other topics.
(The Ray Brown portion of the discussion will be included in an upcoming feature honoring Ray Brown’s long and influential career.)
We spoke first about Alexander’s work as leader and composer.
Franz Matzner: Considering your versatility as a player, and the many musicians you’ve worked with, you’re clearly taking on a certain veteran role of your own.
Monty Alexander: I had no idea. (Laughing deeply)
FM: Is that a role you would enjoy?
MA: Actually, I’ll tell you what I enjoy. I enjoy dealing with my identity issues, the identity issue of when you’re born in Jamaica you have such a powerful and thoroughly wonderful experience in that world. The thing about the lifestyle, as well as the music thing that happens, which is a strange concoction of things that came out of Jamaica and became popular. We like to say, the rhythm is the thing. You know that feeling in the music is so strong, so powerful, it effected the whole world. Call it reggae, or ska, the whole spirit of Jamaica. And that is in me just as deeply as when I hear jazz. So what I had to do, because I was born diverse—because I’m multi-cultural, multi-racial, all the things people talk about—I love serious forms of expression. No one more than the other, you understand? ...[W]hatever I play I want it to speak. To talk through the piano. I want to communicate with humans. And if I play a Jamaican oriented piece, that’s going to have life in it. If I play a bluesy thing which I also heard from the time I was a kid, it’s going to have life in it. If I play a ballad like a Nat Cole song, it’s going to have life in it. I love all these things. I finally came to terms. I’m not going to try and fit in to the status quo of being a jazz musician. I don’t know what that is. I just go play. And if I have an opportunity to play for those people who have never even heard of Louis Armstrong, I’m going to move them. I’m going to try to move them without throwing away my sincerity as an artist.
FM: Isn’t it Louis Armstrong who said, ‘Jazz is what you are’?
MA: I like it! You know I haven’t even mentioned it, but Louis was my first real big-time hero in music. I saw him in Kingston, Jamaica and I just idolized him. I had a trumpet I was trying to play—couldn’t play—but you know, I just dreamed of being on a stage like Louis Armstrong. And I think other than his great, great musicianship, going back to what you said, it was what he was. And he was the ultimate. He was kinda like a preacher up there with this hip instrument. That’s what I wanted to be. That’s what I’ve been striving after. When I didn’t let my inhibitions get in the way. ‘Cause you sometimes say, ‘what’ll they think, what’ll they think’ but the real me thinks, ‘it don’t matter.’ I’m like the colors of a rainbow.
FM: This brings up something I’m very interested in. Maybe a tangent, but I’d like to ask. You talked about the rhythmic feel of reggae and the swing feel of jazz, especially classic jazz. They’re awfully similar.
MA: Thank you! Man, I can tell you something. As the days, the weeks, the months roll by realizations come to me. How come this thing that when in its infancy was happening in these little recording studios in Kingston, with guys just hanging out, how come this thing grabs the world the way it does? First of all, there’s such spirit hanging over Jamaica. It is so strong, whether it’s a brooding thing—people expressing their discontent—or happiness, joy, whatever it is. Jamaica is a powerful, powerful place. Like Cuba is. Like Israel is.
FM: There’s an intensity.
MA: An intensity. And when the guys started playing the ska music...I was a part of that. Fourteen, fifteen years old and I’m playing in those studios. Hanging out, backing up a lot of guys. You didn’t see my name on these things, but I was on a lot of these records. And...when it really got to the people—and I mean the folks that were in the more struggling communities, working hard all week cleaning up somebody’s house or stuff like that, Friday night come, they wanna dance and have a ball—they started copying American recordings of R&B artists...blues oriented artists and guys out of New Orleans, Clarence Henry Frogman, people that when they would record you heard the beat comin’ over the thing that make you get up and move. This to me was the first thing I tried to play on the piano. From seven years old I’m playing a rhythm on the piano. And this is what Jamaicans love. These guys fell in love with Lester Young, and Bird, J.J. Johnson—I don’t know if you’ve heard of Don Drummond—these are the sort of musicians in Jamaica that were very powerful, powerful personalities. This is during the beginning of the whole thing in the late fifties And the rhythm was the key.
FM: You touched on something I’ve been thinking about a lot. The way the rhythmic element speaks out to the people—to people who are using the music as a break from the tedium of their everyday—and without that aspect flowing through the music it won’t connect to the people, and if it doesn’t connect to the people in that way, then it becomes, something else.
MA: Yeah man! And here is what we’re saying. That’s exactly what it was when those bands were up in Harlem, playing at the Apollo, or the Savoy....Friday, Saturday night people would dress up, put on their most beautiful clothes, go and let it out, man. Get on the dance floor. And by the way, the key to this thing—which is why jazz is a different animal today, and I don’t want to frown and throw out things that sound like negative comments—but the truth is, that understanding...is more or less gone now. The music was about getting people to dance. Ellington would never have become the great Ellington if he couldn’t have kept those jobs getting people up on the dance floor. And this is the genius that wrote music that makes us swoon. But the key to what he did, whatever he tapped into, it better get you swingin’. ‘Cause that’s Basie, Lunceford, all those musicians. Fats Waller. When you sat at the piano you didn’t just run off a bunch of notes like another classical this that or the other. This shit had to swing. And that was the key in Jamaica too. Look, I’m not going to isolate this to African oriented people at all. No, it’s about every culture you can come from.
FM: Everywhere. Everywhere rhythm is key to spiritual expression. And sure, some places they use it differently than others. But it’s always there. For example, I don’t think you could say Beethoven didn’t know how to use rhythm.
MA: Indeed. In fact, when that stuff got up off the ground, those people in the Austrian courts, or wherever it was, were swooning just the same. Whatever the expression, if the rhythm is there—instead of all this calculated supposed-to-be-ness, I don’t know how else to put it—forget all this calculated supposed-to-be-ness and just go there and do what you do, be what you are, like Louis Armstrong said. That’s when you have this thing that levitates the human spirit. Which is why people use it in church.
FM: You actually just touched on two things I’d like to ask a little bit more about. First, looking at Impressions in Blue as a follow up to My America , they both have a strong quality of nostalgia, nostalgia for certain elements of America’s past?
MA: Yeah man. Big time.
FM: And the second thing is, you seem to place a strong emphasis on a sense of place. For example, the three Jamaican influenced tracks on “Impressions in Blue.”
MA: Yes, certainly, you’re right. I bring in the physicality of it. That’s because the Caribbean—or the West Indies as I call it—is me. That’s where I’m from, no less than Sonny Rollins, Wynton Kelly, so many of the greats. The only difference is, I ain’t ashamed, pal. A lot of these great artists never said it...I don’t know, maybe in those times it was different. But if you look at New York, or Washington, a large portion of people of color in the big cities, in America, are now of Caribbean origin. So, now in a way it’s much easier for me. It comes with great pride. So adding these songs to the collection is just my way of saying I want to include this, offer it amidst the other great, great people. Ellington, Gershwin, you know I love all this music. I even love the cowboys—with a passion. Man, I could go into that for a week and tell you. ...But it’s not just the physicality. It’s the time also. A sort of kinder, gentler time when people were still struggling, but when they did their music it was a relief, kind of a resting place. Whereas when you hear a lot of new popular music its like something to beat this thing down into you...that life is hard, a struggle, that we have to fight.
FM: A lot of aggression.
MA: Exactly. Aggression, and ugliness. Whereas this music is ‘give me a rest’. Its like, if I take my ten dollars and go to a movie I want to have fun. I don’t want to be reminded of the ugliness. Which is why I hardly go to the movies anymore. So its not just jazz. It’s the whole culture, it’s driving this thing down, telling us how bad life is. See, now I’m talking to you with my own, I don’t know, I don’t always talk like this. But that’s the way it is. So when I get to the music, man, I want to forget all that. (Laughter)
FM: I did want to ask a bit about Shakur.
MA: I love this man. Because Hassan...J.J, as we used to call him, grew up hearing this music. He heard Ray[Brown] since he was six years old! He was this child prodigy playing the bass at six years old. And he, like Bob Cranshaw, like John Clayton, like Ray Brown, like all these wonderful bassists I’ve been honored to play with, these men have ears. You just play a chord and bam, they now what note to play. You know, I have hardly ever written a note of music on the bandstand to show these guys? You don’t have to write ‘nothin’ down. You just start playing and everyone knows what to do.
FM: Do you plan on recording with Hassan again?
MA: As long as they let me! Because ...Hassan, being a rhythm man, picks up on all those reggae lines and man, plays them with a passion. He’s got it. In fact, we just made a record that’ll be coming out next year. We’re very proud of it...We made a true rock- steady Jamaican album...
FM: Will that be on Telarc as well?
MA: Yes, it is. And I mean, man, when you put this on, you start getting’ the point right away...
FM: And I have to ask about Taylor because I have a special passion for the drums.
MA: Me too.
FM: So I always ask about the drummers.
MA: Let me tell you about Mark. Mark is this guy that comes from England, and I make special note of that because he wasn’t around N.Y.—and I’m saying this very carefully because I don’t want to sound like I think I know more than anyone else—but there was a whole N.Y. cerebral hip thing about ‘let’s keep up with the times, what’s the next thing we’re gonna do,’ and you’d get to the scene with all these incredibly talented younger musicians that went to the music schools, you know? Mark Taylor’s like me and Hassan. Guess where we got it? On the street corner! In the saloon, in the joint. Fourteen, fifteen years old watchin’ the guy on the bandstand. And if you’re lucky maybe going up to him and saying, ‘I sure would like to know you a little better’. You don’t even ask him about how he played the piano, you just watchin’, pickin’ it up until it gets down in the pours of your being. And this is what Mark Taylor is about. He is one of the last of the swingin’ jazz drummers who come from the true bebop tradition, yet at the same time, I can take him where I want to go...its just thrilling to have a drummer that has that rock-solid rhythm when he plays a pulsing jazz tempo...He’s not trying to be another Elvin. There’s only one Elvin. And there’s a whole host of people trying to follow that style, but that doesn’t come from ‘let me make your body shake’.
FM: Its true there aren’t that many. But there are a few...
MA: Let me tell you who they are...the drummer for Marselasis. He’s a baaad dude. And a lot of these New Orleans drummers like, Indrid Muhammad, but if you got a few, I’d like to know who they there are?
FM: I’m a big fan of Bill Stewart.
MA: Oh, he’s good. I like him! You know what happened to him? He played with Maceo Parker, so he learned about the groovin’ from him.
FM: I like the way he’s developed a totally personal style, very expressive, but the groove is always right there.
MA: I got to find this man....
FM: I’m also getting into this younger cat, Nasheet Waits...
MA: Now, I knew his daddy very well. His daddy played with me, so I’ve been hearing his name...I want to thank you for that because when I hear a good word about anybody, because I don’t really get a chance to go and hear as much anymore. And another thing, when I hear a record today, to me—and this is a quick comment about something else—when you buy a record today of a jazz group, the engineers and the producers in the studio, they don’t know what the swingin’ thing is about. So when they’re recording, its like they’re sucking all the possibility out of the thing levitating...they take away the potential of the bass, the feel of the air coming out of it, they mike the drums in a way you’ll hear(pause) I don’t know what to say. But when you put that thing on it’s the opposite of all the sensibilities that we have when we listen to a record that was made in the fifties. Which gave us the feeling that we wanted keep this jazz thing alive.
FM: I’m glad you brought this up. I’m very interested in this topic. In fact, I was just talking to a friend about the difference between live drumming, and the way it sounds on recordings. Or even live recordings vs. studio...
MA: Terrible, terrible.
FM: ...the difference is remarkable.
MA: There ya go. It[live recording] gives you a better chance to determine and enjoy the spirit of a musician and what he is all about rather than all this technical mumbo-jumbo. Because what’s happened to musicians. While we’ve been trying to get more complicated and come up with the new things and all of that, we became victimized by some well intended young people who went to universities and came out with degrees on how to have a perfect microphone.
MA: We don’t even think about it. But this guy is in the room with the buttons and the dials and let me tell you what would work. One microphone. Hang it in the middle of the studio just like you recorded the Basie orchestra with one mike in front of the place. One old beat up mike and you’ll hear the bass with your natural ears...it’s like what happened with the movies. They want to give you virtual reality. ... They’re gonna show you every explosion, the blood coming out the people that get shot, and they leave your imagination out of the mix. You can’t imagine anymore. Its right up your you know what.
FM: I find it all over-produced. Over calculated, so that there’s no spirit in it anymore.
MA:...I’m lucky, I’m glad I have some very functional people around. The Telarc crowd, because they’re very mindful of all this audiophile stuff which I couldn’t care about. Frankly, I don’t know what it is. I still have my old second rate record player. And I’m happy with that. When I hear about people spending $30,000 for equipment, I say ‘God Bless you pal, but what for!?’ Maybe they’re ears are better than mine. But there is an audience out there that wants to have beyond perfect. And beyond perfect is not necessarily what touches the heart. So I’m glad we have some people over there that can work with a guy like me.
FM: Telarc seems like a great place.
MA: It is a good bunch of people. And what’s great, is if its not working, they never tell you what to do....they give good feedback. I like them very much. In fact, I’m very grateful that they’ve encouraged my venturing into my home, Jamaican projects.