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Jeremy Monteiro: No Black Tie Required

Photo credit: Russel Wong

Ian Patterson By

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Listening to Ahmad Jamal stating the melodies so succinctly with this beautiful phrasing… you could feel where his breath was... That really did affect my aesthetic in one big way, which is the same way it affected Miles [Davis] and that is in how I deliver a melody.
—Jeremy Monteiro
Jeremy Monteiro has been Singapore's unofficial jazz ambassador since the late 1970s, carving out a pioneering path around the world. The first South East Asian to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival and the first S.E. Asian to record for the Verve label, Monteiro has made a habit of playing with the very best, from James Moody, Terumasa Hino, Ernie Watts and Jimmy Cobb to Toots Thielemans, Cassandra Wilson and Michael Brecker.

His 'can-do' spirit and tireless work ethic are an inspiration to aspiring young musicians in Singapore, for whom he is a passionate advocate. Not for nothing did Monteiro receive his country's highest award in the arts, the Cultural Medallion, in 2002.

Since playing his first professional gig in 1976, Monteiro has built an impressive discography that runs the gamut from straight-ahead jazz and electro-acoustic jazz fusion to jazzified tributes to The Carpenters, Stevie Wonder, Michel Legrand and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Live at No Black Tie (Jazznote, 2021), Monteiro's forty-fifth album, captures the pianist in the stellar company of Jay Anderson and Lewis Nash. Recorded live in Kuala Lumpur during a 2019 tour of Malaysia and China, it showcases Monteiro's interpretive skills, his compositional flair and, as ever, his outstanding chops.

Monteiro first came across Jay Anderson in the late 1990s, when the pianist combined Terumasa Hino's Asian All-Stars Band with members of the trumpeter's American band for a concert in Kula Lumpur. "It was Michael Carvin on drums, Jay Anderson, myself and Eugene Pao," Monteiro recalls.

Monteiro and Anderson stayed in touch. In 2003, when Monteiro was looking for a rhythm section for a special concert with Toots Thielemans—as part of the Singapore Arts Festival—the pianist called upon Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum.

"I got to know Jay when we played with Toots Thielemans and Adam Nussbaum. We became very good friends and played on an off over the years," explains Monteiro. Fast forward to 2018 and Monteiro once again called on Anderson—and as well as drummer Lewis Nash—to participate in the Lion City Youth Jazz Festival. The seeds for the trio tour, which would render the live recording Live at No Black Tie, were planted here.

Monteiro relished the experience of playing with two of New York's finest. "Jay is one of those rare musicians who when I play with him he makes me sound better than I actually am," says Monteiro of Anderson. "He plays great solos, but to him what is most important is the sound of the unit. He lifts you and allows the rest of the musicians to sound great. He's a very generous musician that way."

Nash, who Monteiro believes may be the most recorded drummer in jazz history, also brought the best out of Monteiro. "Lewis Nash is so amazing, so clairvoyant actually. After just the first two notes of a phrase he will know exactly where I am going with it. Everything I could think of he has been there and done that. He's so alert."

The recording of Live at No Black Tie took place over the first two nights of the tour in, Kuala Lumpur. It may seem strange not to have left the recording until the end of the tour, but as Monteiro explains there were good reasons for this decision. Firstly, the acoustics of No Black Tie—Malaysia's premiere jazz club since 1998—are excellent. Importantly, Monteiro's long-time sound engineer Sunil Kumar was going to be there, and to clinch it, club owner Eveyln Hill had not long before installed a Fazioli piano, which for some, including Monteiro, is arguably the best piano in the world.

"I didn't want to miss the opportunity to record on a Fazioli and with Sunil there," Monteiro explains. "We had a long rehearsal and then we recorded the best tracks over the two nights."

Playing a gig that you know is being recorded for the purpose of release can bring with it particular challenges. "You know, when you're not recording you have this wild abandon, which is very appealing to the audience, sometimes at the expense of accuracy. But when you are recording you don't want a whole lot of risks that fall flat. It's finding a balance," Monteiro explains.

"But that's why I love this recording, because almost every risk I took I would land on my feet." Monteiro, Anderson and Nash seem to be enjoying themselves. Playing before a full, appreciative house on both nights must have helped. Monteiro jokes that half the audience was family.

"On the first night I had about sixteen relatives in the house because my extended family is in Malaysia. My father was one of thirteen children and he and his brother moved to Singapore. The other eleven and their wives, children and grandchildren are in Malaysia, so when I go to Malaysia it really is like going home, you know."

Live at No Black Tie is a good portrait of some of Monteiro's primary influences, with fine interpretations of tunes by Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock mixed among his original compositions.

"I spent a lot of time listening to Duke Ellington the pianist, Erroll Garner as well," acknowledges Monteiro.

Though Garner died just as Monteiro was starting out on his path as a professional musician, the Singaporean pianist once enjoyed a special insight into Garner's musical world. "I had the opportunity once to record at the famous Nola recording studio in New York with the engineer Jim Czak. Erroll Garner, when he died, had left his grand piano at the Nola recording studios," Monteiro relates.

"Erroll Garner learned the piano by watching his brother take piano lessons, because the family couldn't afford it for the two of them. He would watch from his room as his brother took the lessons, so his brother got all the correct technique, but Errol learned more the musicality."

Learning by osmosis and close observation, Garner was an intuitive though unorthodox pianist, as Monteiro explains. "Errol Garner never cut his finger nails. He used to play with flat fingers, which is not the way you're supposed to play the piano. His hard uncut finger nails would scratch the lid of his piano. He played so hard he would actually scrape off the layer of lacquer. So, I played on that piano. I love Errol Garner," Monteiro states without reserve.

A refined, arresting rendition of "Prelude to a Kiss"—featuring a mesmeric solo from Anderson—reveals more than just Ellington's influence on Monteiro. "I think 'Prelude to a Kiss' is my amalgamation of lots and of input that I had forgotten about from my early years listening to copious amounts of Duke Ellington, Errol Garner and a third person actually, is George Gershwin, who people forget was an amazing pianist. That kind of comes through when I listen to it."

A balladeer of delicate touch, dynamic range and nuance, Monteiro's "Josefina—named for his wife—draws from a totally different tradition. "For "Josefina" I think I'm actually applying the way Michel Camilo plays a Latin ballad. He's such a powerhouse, right? He has amazing chops and he's so sensitive. He's an inspiration for those kinds of things," recognizes Monteiro.

"And I love the pianist from Irakere, Chucho Valdes, who I first saw at Ronnie Scott's in 1985. Chucho had that beautiful Latin, romantic style of playing piano. I try to develop the same kind of aesthetic as Michel Camilo and Chucho Valdes."

When it comes to playing a ballad—something he does exceptionally well—Monteiro is indebted to the great James Moody, with whom the pianist enjoyed a fifteen-year-long collaboration. In his award-winning book Late Night Thoughts of a Jazz Musician (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2018), Monteiro credits Moody with persuading him to totally commit to the tempo of a ballad.

"It was James Moody making a general statement, and for many years I treated it like one of the Ten Commandments," admits Monteiro. "And although I still defer to his advice to just play a ballad when I'm playing a ballad, there have been so many other musicians who double time the ballad, like Ahmad Jamal and so on. It's not just a crutch—because you might be thinking that the crowd is getting bored—but going into double time on a ballad is an aesthetic decision, not one of insecurity, thanks to James Moody."

Jamal is another who has left an indelible impression on Monteiro. "When I was younger I used to improvise on the melody and my dad would get upset and he would say, 'Jeremy, you have all this time to improvise but why can't you just state the melody the first time around without fiddling around too much with it?' I knew where he was coming from, but then just listening to Ahmad Jamal stating the melodies so succinctly with this beautiful phrasing... you could feel where his breath was in the phrasing. That really did affect my aesthetic in one big way, which is the same way it affected Miles [Davis] and that is in how I deliver a melody."

Where Jamal's influence is more subtly felt in Monteiro's playing on Live at No Black Tie the spirt of James Moody looms large in the shape of the swinging "Mode for Love."

"It's such an atypical composition of mine," concedes Monteiro. "Firstly, it's so modal and it has uneven bars, which I don't particularly like. I mean, I can do it when I play with Terumasa [Hino] and he demands it from me, or when I play with Ernie Watts, who loves to play with uneven bars. Because I have to put in more homework, right? laughs Monteiro.

"First, the song came about with Moody just sitting with me and playing all those Coltrane licks and deliberately inverting them. It was so funny to see this great bebopper, the experiments he was doing with that in the '60s—he would throw that in and you would see the rest of the band, their heads just turning, 'What was that?' because for a minute there was this Coltrane thing but not really because it was an inverted Coltrane."

Monteiro speaks fondly of Moody and cherishes the memories of their time spent together. "One day this song came to me and I just wrote it out. I thought, 'This song really makes me think of that time I played with Moody,' and tongue in cheek I decided to call it "Moody's Mode for Love.'

Something that Monteiro is perhaps not given enough credit for is his affinity for the blues, heard to great effect on "Mount Olive." Monteiro dedicates the tune to former sparring partners Eldee Young and Issac Redd Holt—bassist and drummer respectively in Ramsey Lewis's celebrated trio of the 1950s and '60s, with whom they recorded around two dozen albums on the legendary Chess imprint.

Among a host of great memories of his years playing with Young and Holt, Monteiro remembers well one particular episode while touring the States.

"We were playing in Washington DC at this club called Ed Murphy's Supper Club. We had followed Bobby Lyle who was before us. It was a great week," reminisces Monteiro. "We went and gave workshops at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, went to a radio station to do an interview and bumped into Max Roach. We were going in as he was coming out."

Not being a great morning person, by his own admission, Monteiro was roused from his sleep one morning by an early wake-up call from his bandmates.

"Eldee and Redd said, 'Jeremy, go get a shower, get dressed and be ready in half an hour. We wanna take you to the Mount Olive Baptist Church—you have to hear this music."

Monteiro duly complied and to this day is thankful that he did. "It was just amazing. This great gospel choir, a fiery, very emotive preacher, a great gospel organ player. So, I had a chance to see the context in which that music is played, the preacher, the call and response—that kind of musical information got hard-wired straightaway into my musical sensibility."

The blues, however, was not always so keenly felt in Monteiro's musical vocabulary. In his early twenties, as a young, rising star on the Singapore music scene, Monteiro had benefitted from some tough love courtesy of his father.

"My father was sitting with his number two and number four brothers, and they had come to one of my gigs. They were both gushing and telling my dad that I had all this Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock in his hands at this very young age and my dad said nonchalantly to them, 'Yeah, but he still doesn't know how to play the blues.'

"And so, Uncle Greg came and told me that. I was quite livid at my dad because you know, when you're young don't like to be criticised. But I started listening to some of the old pre-jazz blues singers and players. His criticism motivated me to prove to him that I could play the blues one day."

Just a few years later, in 1985, Monteiro had the good fortune to meet Young and Holt, embarking on a musical adventure that only ended with Young's passing in 2007. If Monteiro dreamed of a solid grounding in the blues he found it with Young and Holt, both of whom cut their teeth in Chicago's clubs in the 1950s.

"Eldee had started off life as a blues player, playing the Chitlin circuit. I really respect that because, you know, I was really wet behind the ears, a smart-headed little kid beside these two Grammy winners, and they opened themselves to me and being so welcoming and then after a while asking me to lead the band. I learned so much about the blues from them."

Though "Mount Olive" was originally written for Monteiro's album Jazz Blues Brothers (Verve Music Group, 2014) with Hammond organ player Alberto Marsico, Holt was very much on Monteiro's mind at the time. "I wrote it with Redd's conga-swing feeling. I did it as an old, jazz-blues funk and I've played it as such all these years."

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Holt, who is 89, was still playing once a week. "I try to speak to him once every two or three months on the phone," says Monteiro.

Monteiro, Young and Holt's finest hour came at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1988, with special guests ODonel Levy and John Stubblefield. The band took to the stage at the unholy time of 5am, remarkably enough to a decent-sized audience. Their powerhouse performance—one of festival director Claude Nobbs' all-time favourites—was captured for posterity on Live at Montreux 1988.

The five-hour delay to Monteiro, Young and Holt taking to the Montreux Jazz Festival stage was not the only hitch the trio had to overcome. "We didn't have a sound check because Chick Corea took too long," Monteiro recalls. Luckily, veteran sound engineer David Richards came to the rescue.

"I remember David saying, 'What does your band sound like?' And I said, 'Monty Alexander, Montreux, 1974.' He said, 'OK, got it.' He had his notebooks and he recalled all the settings. He just recalled everything manually. That's how he got the sound of the band right from the start of the show, from the first note. He referred to the record. That's one of my favourite Montreux records," says Monteiro. "It's certainly one of my favourite Monty Alexander records."

The value of a good sound engineer to the success of a gig or a recording cannot be overstated. Monteiro is indebted to sound engineer Sunil Kumar for the excellent sound quality and mix of Live at No Black Tie. Kumar had also worked for years in TV production and had a thorough knowledge camera work and lighting, but as Monteiro says, his real love is in audio.

"Well, first of all, Sunil is a super intelligent person. He is actually an autodidact. He takes an amazing, multi-pronged approach to recording," says Monteiro of his first-choice sound engineer since 1996.

"On the one hand, of course, he's using his ears, but he's always very good at using whatever kind of spectrum meters to look at the sound so that the transience that maybe he doesn't hear that may clash and create funny artefacts, he picks up. He's really good at that."

Kumar could never stand accused of taking shortcuts. "He mixed this album multiple times. After mix twelve [laughs Monteiro] it just sounded so great. It's almost the kind of effort you put into a pop record. I was so happy, and Sunil was so happy as well."

The Covid-19 pandemic put the brakes on Monteiro's usual hectic schedule, but he has not been idle, composing, practising, playing special events before reduced audiences that have been live streamed. "You know, I'm ever the optimist but my worry is how long we can keep doing shows because we love to do it and not make any money, or worse still, lose money on it," Monteiro reflects candidly.

"I hope that by the time 2022, 2023 comes along it will afford us the opportunity to tour this music again. As far as Covid is concerned, I am afraid that we will not be free of this until the second half of next year, but I believe it will be over."

Amen to that. Having Monteiro back on the road, doing what he does best, is something that all jazz lovers can look forward to.

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