Monty Alexander - Uplift (2011)


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By S. Victor Aaron

Kingston, Jamaica's own Monty Alexander looms as large a figure in Jamaica's jazz world as Bob Marley does for its homegrown reggae. A virtuosic pianist in the Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson tradition, Alexander often melds Tatum and Peterson with the dancehall, calypso and reggae idioms from his homeland, and nobody does it better. Regardless of the particular style of jazz he chooses, his piano playing lies at the heart of his artistry. He's truly a thrilling, joyful player with a flair for trills, block chord bombardments and amazing single note runs. He avoids being overly showy due to the Peterson-like elegance in his playing style; he's a hard swinger and always respectful of tradition even when he branches away from it. This guy is a real legend who've I've been itching to discuss on this site for quite some time, now, and Alexander's March 8 release of Uplift presents the perfect excuse to do just that.

Uplift, a collection of live recordings taken from assorted concerts between 2007 and 2010, isn't one of those tribute or stylistic exercise records he likes to make from time to time, and which are usually enjoyable excursions. Rather, it's straight up acoustic piano trio jazz containing a healthy mixture of standards and originals, which remains the best way to fully appreciate what a phenomenal player Mr. Alexander truly is. Joining Alexander are Hassan Shakur on bass and either Herlin Riley or Frits Landesbergen on drums. These aren't household names, but they know well how to bolster the leader without competing for attention.

Many of these songs have long been in his repertoire, and I've heard most of them performed on his other records, but Alexander doesn't get stuck in a rut playing the same songs in the same way. His re-imagining of one his favored originals “Renewal," for instance, was slow and deliberate on the third Triple Treat he made with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, but here he goes for a mid-tempo funk groove before lunging into all-out swing and back to the groove again, finding new and creative ways to spin the theme. “Come Fly With Me" was a favorite of Frank Sinatra's, the man who hired a teenaged Alexander to play at Jilly's famed NYC nightclub back in 1961. The pianist immediately shows off his two-fisted lyrical technique, making his piano sing, but in its own voice apart from the master crooner who set his career into motion.

“One Mint Julep" is approached as a backbeat blues, and the self-described “saloon" pianist demonstrates his barrelhouse prowess. The Modern Jazz Quartet standard “Django" is one of those songs that has to be played reverential or it just doesn't come off right; Alexander, a long time friend of Milt Jackson, knows just how to play this tune with the right cadence and swing. He stretches our mightily for “Sweet Georgia Brown" and turns “Body In Soul" into the multi-mood tour de force. Sooner or later Alexander will remind you of his roots, and it's nicely on display on “Hope," a sweeping, thoughtful composition with several reggae passages. The collections ends with a mini-medley of his original, calypso inspired “Home" and segueing into Blue Mitchell's “Fungii Mama." (video below is a different performance of “Home/Fungii Mama" played around the same time with probably the same personnel).

Alexander's humor in his Dexter Gordon-like penchant for unexpectedly popping off quotes from unrelated songs is still intact; he inserts just enough of a fragment of the cavalry charge on “Renewal" that just as it enters your consciousness what he just played there, he abruptly stops it and returns to his regularly scheduled melody. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" makes a very brief appearance on “Come Fly With Me." And then there's “Mary Had a Little Lamb" at the intro of “Body And Soul," and an excerpt from “The Blue Danube" later on in the same performance. “Johnny Comes Marching Home" and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" make cameos on “Home." The theme from “The Flintstones" followed by Thelonius Monk's “Well You Needn't" show up on “Fungii Mama." It's like sampling, done the old school way.

Though recorded live, it's often hard to tell; the crowd can't be heard except only in the appropriate spots, and the acoustics are exemplary (Alexander has played in some of the finer concert halls around the globe). You could probably choose out of the dozen or so records to start an exploration into the thrilling piano stylings of Monty Alexander, and Uplift is as good of a representation of his piano/bass/drums attack as any. The sharp production and editing (by John Lee) helps to narrow down the choices.

Uplift, which so aptly describes what Monty Alexander's brand of jazz does to his audience, comes to us via Jazz Legacy Productions.

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