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Monty Alexander's '76 Montreux Trio: New York, NY, February 27, 2012

Dan Bilawsky By

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Monty Alexander's '76 Montreux Trio
Blue Note
New York, NY
February 27, 2012

At seventeen years of age, pianist Monty Alexander was plucked from obscurity when Frank Sinatra and his club owner buddy Jilly Rizzo heard him play. The Jamaican-born piano phenom was immediately brought into the big time, performing for and with some of the finest musical personalities in the business, and he went on to establish himself as one of the most engaging ivory ticklers of the late twentieth century and beyond. Fifty years have passed since that fateful time, and Alexander has made some stunning records with a diverse cross-section of artists in the intervening years, but he proved capable of looking simultaneously backward and forward while living in the here-and-now during a recent career retrospective.

In late February and early March, New York's Blue Note hosted a celebration in honor of Alexander's fifty years in music. Over the course of two weeks, Alexander convened eight different awe-inspiring ensembles in an effort to touch on various facets of his career, but one of the most anticipated events was the two-evening reunion of his famed '76 Montreux Trio. While Bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton are now known, loved and admired the world over thanks to their work with their own respective bands, the co-led Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, and their contributions as sidemen to countless modern classics, they were relatively unknown, up-and-coming musicians when they joined forces with Alexander and recorded what is quite possibly the definitive piano trio album of the '70s—Montreux Alexander (Universal, 1977). In addition to showing off Alexander's incomparable piano work, this live recording from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival signaled the arrival of a new dynamic rhythm duo that's continued to consistently turn heads in the ensuing decades.

While more than three-and-a-half decades separate the recording of this album and these reunion shows—and all three men have traveled a million musical miles in various directions since those days—they haven't lost the swing in their step and the soul in their sound. When they convened on stage for the first set of the evening on Monday, February 27, 2012, they were dressed in dapper fashion, but ready to get down and dirty. Alexander introduced the band and they launched into "Two Bass Hit," which started things off in feisty fashion and referenced Reunion In Europe (Concord, 1983). The show continued with high energy fare, as melodic ornamentations, bluesy tremolos and tasty licks sprang in abundance from Alexander's hands.

After three heart-racing numbers, Alexander and company took a collective breath and cooled off with a performance of the Michael Jackson-associated "Ben." This particular ballad, another highlight from Reunion In Europe, served as a feature piece for Clayton's arco work and his tender delivery transfixed the audience. Alexander introduced the other ballad feature of the evening, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," by reminiscing about his rise to stardom and performing for Sinatra. A gorgeous introduction gave way to a light bossa nova feel, as the band wove its way through the tune in expert fashion.

The rest of the set referenced Montreux Alexander and the audience seemed to luxuriate in the opportunity to hear it live and in person. "Work Song," for example, proved to be the high point of the evening and a short "Battle Hymn Of The Republic" was an enjoyable send off. Monday nights are usually slow for the clubs, but a packed house that included Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, and the late Oscar Peterson's wife and daughter, was indicative of the interest surrounding this group and never a dull moment transpired during its hour-plus set. Alexander, Clayton and Hamilton haven't been a working unit in quite some time, but their chemistry appears to spring eternal.

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