Monty Alexander Brings Reggae Jazz to Blue's Alley

Franz A. Matzner By

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Working together like a matched-pair, it was really something to behold these two master musicians trading run after run of exquisitely crafted joviality.
Monty Alexander is a profoundly entertaining storyteller. It might be better to state that still more precisely. Monty Alexander is a profound and entertaining story teller, and the truly distinctive quality of his performances is that it becomes impossible to discern the one from the other.

This highly potent, heterogeneous concoction is just what audiences encountered last weekend at Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley. Performing with a trio plus special guest Ernest Ranglin, the famed Jamaican guitarist whose signature style helped define Jamaican Ska, Alexander presented an evening of rollicking boogie woogie, ballads, blues, old standards, original compositions drawn from his illustrious past, as well as several pieces from his current release, Rocksteady , which also features the inimitable work of Ranglin.

Shepherding the audience through a wide range of musical styles and emotional frequencies, Alexander began the night with a jaunty tune, “Trust”, and a gentle, humor-infused ballad before launching into more upbeat territory with a piece dedicated to his first piano teacher entitled, “Slappin’ the Boogie Woogie”. Stretching out on this piece, Alexander hit his stride, weaving musical quote after musical quote throughout his devilishly clever improvisations. Ranging from Gershwin to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’”, to the Pink Panther theme, it became a game trying to identify the endless stream of quotations Alexander worked into the evening’s selections. The only problem was that by the time you figured out one allusion, another three had passed you by.

The evening really began to heat up after guest guitarist Ernest Ranglin took the stage. Apparently ready to burn, Ranglin and Alexander immediately launched into a fast paced rendition of “Double Barrel”, the opening track to their new album, followed by an equally solid take of “Confucius”. Working together like a matched-pair, it was really something to behold these two master musicians trading run after run of exquisitely crafted joviality. Clearly sharing more than just a common musical heritage, Ranglin and Alexander displayed a musical affinity so contagious that the audience was visibly moved. Smiles broke out, bodies started swaying, and feet started tapping as everyone became absorbed in the lilting reggae rhythms, punching piano, and popping guitar.

Somewhat disappointingly, the night’s second set followed much the same pattern, with Ranglin sitting out until the concluding two or three tunes. Certainly Alexander’s trio can stand on its own, but the dynamic between Ranglin and Alexander and the distinct groove they established were so compelling that the transition back to straight trio was inevitably a let down. This may also have had something to do with the fact that Alexander himself seemed more excited about playing material from his current release, with his old-time partner in crime, than sticking to straight trio material.

Taking the stage again, this time for to close out the night, Ranglin and Alexander let out all the stops, performing another version of “Confucius”, a Ska take on “Caravan”, and the night’s absolute highlight, a poignant rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. Delving into Marley’s original, Alexander, and particularly Ranglin, distilled the tune to its most moving essence.

Having taken the audience on a tremendously diverse musical tour, Alexander ended the evening with one last surprise. Inviting his wife to the stage, Alexander accompanied her on an Italian ballad which became all the more touching the more obvious it became that Alexander was truly enjoying himself. Though perhaps a strange change of mood from the reggae-oriented material, the piece ended the evening by further expressing Alexander’s all inclusive, life affirming vision of the musical experience.

In an artistic milieu that often privileges the maudlin over the joyful and the stark over the bright, assuming that summits of insight are located only in troughs of despair, Alexander’s ability to paint vivid, positive pictures while remaining intellectually astute attests to more than just his exceptional instrumental capacity—it cuts to the core of Alexander’s infectious love of life attitude. This is not meant to suggest that Alexander walks through the world with blinders on, avoiding the darker aspects of human experience. In fact, all one has to do is listen to the man play the blues or approach a ballad to understand that he’s been out there, that his eyes and mind are wide open, and that over his long life and career he’s absorbed a depth of understanding and an ability to express it well-worth paying close attention to. The distinguishing factor is that down deep, Alexander still believes in the defining capacity of music to sublimate the pains, inequities, and sufferings it explores. This belief may also account for why even after countless recordings and years on the road performing night after night, Alexander can still take an audience on a journey ranging from the humorous, to the softly romantic, to the blues, and find in all these myriad forms of expression and experience a basic cause for celebration.

Visit Monty Alexander on the web at www.montyalexander.com .

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