Take equal parts of Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and Gene Harris, add a jigger of Jamaican rum, steep the mix in the spirits of Louis, Nat, and the Countand you've got a master musician, not to mention a superior piano album and an inspired live recording session that is already looking like one of the outstanding releases for 2005.
This is Monty Alexander's best recording in at least ten, if not fifteen years, an album that brings to mind his admired 1976 Montreux concert album and even recalls some of the youthful fire that characterized his exuberant, tireless playing in the early years. (We've Only Just Begun, an LP on the defunct MPS label, must rank as one of the hardest-swinging sessions on record.)
What distinguishes Alexander's playing from Tatum or Peterson is the room he leaves for the listener. A recent Down Beat review of this latest Alexander offering falls wide of the mark when writer Will Smith finds in the leader's performance "glibness" and "merely showy embellishments with little originality." As dazzling as Alexander's technique and pianisms are, he never simply overwhelms you. Every new chorus finds him coming up with an inventive approach to the challenge of improvisation. He'll suddenly give his left hand the melodic chores and delegate harmonic duties to the right; or he'll do an unaccompanied polyrhythmic chorus followed by ascending block chords leading chromatically into an exploding out chorus. And often his "out" choruses are merely setups for another round of all-out improvising, except with the intensity turned up a notch.
Listening to Alexander is a bit like watching a Hitchcock movieyou're always matching wits with a master who's daring you to guess his next move. It's rarely what you anticipate, or it's the anticipated occurring at an unexpected time. "Work Song," that overly familiar, thread-worn jazz standard, is brimful of surprises, changing keys imperceptibly and going into overdrive just when it appears the high-flying musical rhetoric of the performance is coming in for a landing. "Lil Darlin'" finds Monty capturing not just Basie's delicate touch but, through tremolo choruses, the intensity of the full ensemble. "My Mother's Eyes" recalls Sonny Stitt's recording of the tune and offers a virtual clinic on how to draw a listener into a heretofore unfamiliar song. Monty plays the melody straight and unaccompanied, then eases the rhythm section in with a graceful two-beat feel, finally hitting his stride with a walking, swinging 4/4 version. Although each chorus becomes increasingly adventurous, none relinquishes strategic points of reference to the original melody.
But it's not variety and eclecticism that distinguish a scintillating Alexander set. What's significant is that the hooks, allusions, riffs, and inexhaustible tricks up the pianist's sleeve never intrude on the momentum of the performance. This is music for the mind, the soul, andnot leastthe feet.
1. Work Song, The; 2. Slappin'; 3. My Mother's Eyes; 4. Happylypso / Funji Mama; 5. River, The; 6. Runnin' Away; 7. Little Darlin'; 8. Mount Zanda; 9. That's The Way It Is.
Monty Alexander (piano); Hassan Shakur (bass instrument); Robert Thomas Jr. (drums, percussion); Mark Taylor (drums). Recording information: Iridium Jazz Club, New York, New York (05/21/2004 - 05/23/2004).
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