Monty Alexander: New York, February 20-March 4, 2012

Bob Kenselaar By

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Monty Alexander: 50 Years in Music & 50 Years of Jamaica
The Blue Note
New York, NY
February 20-March 4, 2012
Monty Alexander set out an ambitious agenda in trying to showcase all the many facets of his 50-year career in music during this two-week stint at the Blue Note. The pianist sure delivered, though, judging by three shows that featured Alexander side-by-side with several of his many collaborators over the years—some of the top names working in jazz and reggae.
February 21: Triple Treat Revisited
Two nights in the series were dubbed "Triple Treat Revisited," a reference to the trio consisting of Alexander, bassist Ray Brown, and guitarist Herb Ellis, who met up in the late 1970s and performed and recorded together under the name Triple Treat. Alexander mentioned how fondly he remembered the trio's performances at the Blue Note some 30 years ago, and introduced his two collaborators for the early show on February 21—Russell Malone on guitar and Christian McBride on bass—as being perfectly suited to fill the roles of the two other original members, both of whom have passed away within the last decade.

Malone—clearly in the top echelon of today's jazz guitarists—joined Alexander and Brown on a CD entitled Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Russell Malone (Telarc, 2002), which turned out to be Brown's last recording. Alexander described how important Brown was as an influence on jazz bassists of his generation when he introduced Christian McBride as, essentially, Brown's figurative heir, or as the pianist put it, "Ray Brown's son—plus!"

The set opened with "I Got My Mojo Working," with Alexander's playing a bit of barrelhouse, which ultimately led to rich harmonies and intricate bebop lines. McBride played a wonderfully constructed solo, setting out in his first chorus with impressive melodic lines and following up with a second chorus building on those ideas in long runs of sixteenth notes covering the full range of his instrument.

In the second tune, Miles Davis' "Freddie the Freeloader," Malone started out with some especially solid swing comping that brought to mind the Basie guitarist Freddie Green, and then ventured out into to his own unique bebop voicings. Later in the tune, McBride and Alexander found themselves playing the same long riff in unison, thanks to an uncanny a mix of telepathy and sheer coincidence, as reflected in their bright smiles of surprise. Alexander took a very playful approach to the out chorus of the tune, almost caricaturing the playing of famous Miles Davis pianists, sounding out some lush diminished chords á la Bill Evans—played with more than a little bit of irony—and then bringing to mind Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. Alexander finished off the selection with a flourish by reaching into the piano and strumming its strings like a harp.

Other songs in the set included "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," and "Fly Me to the Moon," with a novel introduction where the trio traded fours before getting to the melody. There were two other standouts, tunes closely associated with the original trio. One was the Flintstones theme, the rhythm-changes romp recorded on the first Triple Treat CD (Concord, 1982), with a fine arco solo by McBride which included a funny quote from "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." The other was Brown's composition, "Reunion Blues," the closer, which Alexander told me after the set was something of a theme song for the group.

February 25: Ivory and Steel: A Jazz Tribute to Trinidad
For another pair of evenings in the two-week series, Alexander reached back to another special collaboration during his career, his Ivory and Steel band, which toured together in the 1980s and recorded two CDs, both on the Concord label Ivory and Steel(1980) and Jamboree (1988). As Alexander explained, the "ivory" in the name referred to the keys on the piano, and the "steel" referred to the steel drum. The latter, also known as steel pan, an especially critical element in the sound of the group, was played by one of the pioneers on the instrument in jazz, Othello Molineaux, known for his long collaboration with Jaco Pastorius. Joining Alexander and Molineaux were two other original members of the Ivory and Steel band, the bassist and long-time Alexander associate Hassan Shakur and percussionist Bobby Thomas, also known as Bobby T., who shares Molineaux's connection with Pastorius through his work with Weather Report in the 1980s. Rounding out the band were Etienne Charles, the young jazz trumpet player who, like Molineaux, hails from Trinidad, and drummer Herlin Riley, who performed with Alexander and Shakur in a trio setting on Uplift! (Retrieval, 2011), a CD that got considerable airplay on jazz radio in the past year.

Alexander pointed out the flags from Trinidad and his own native Jamaica, draped over the piano, that represented the musical direction for the evening. The set opened up with the rhythm section alone— piano, bass, drums, and percussion—playing a lively island number that at one point morphed into "Day O," the Harry Belafonte vehicle.

It also included a nice contrasting swing chorus and a spectacular, extended hand drumming workout by Thomas on his array of instruments: bongos, congas, agogo bells, an electronic pad, and a crispy crash cymbal set high up, a full arm's reach away, that he'd dramatically slap from time to time throughout the set. The second number included Alexander mischievously sprinkling in several quotes from a range of sources, among them "Peter and the Wolf" and Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," and also featured a fine bass solo by Shakur with deft double stops here and there.

Molineaux and Charles then hit the stage and the full band set off on an arrangement that mixed together Miles Davis' "Impressions" and "So What"—a selection that appeared on the first Ivory and Steel CD. A ballad followed, "Sugarloaf at Twighlight," an original composition by Alexander. Molineaux showed off his superior command of the steel drum, as his sound lent the perfect coloring for the calypso-jazz fusion Alexander was aiming for. Charles' contributions on trumpet added something fresh—a young, hip take on bebop, mixed with tasty little flavorings from Trinidad.
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