MONTY ALEXANDER / Monty Alexander Mixtape
The rhythm section: piano, bass, drums. That’s the basic engine of swinging jazz. You can do traditional New Orleans street jazz without a piano. In fact in a parade you’ve got to do that without a piano since you be marching down the street and in the swing band, the rhythm guitar was almost as important as the piano, certainly just as important as the bass. But once bebop hit, modern jazz was built atop the rhythm section and it’s pretty much still the basic kernel of the jazz ensemble.
There have been a number of famous piano trios in modern jazz, the two most influential were the Oscar Peterson Trio and the Ahmad Jamal Trio. Count me in the Jamal camp. I could admire Peterson’s prestidigitations as he works magic. (I once saw Peterson doing a dueling duet with Herbie Hancock. Hancock got wiped out when Peterson responded to one of Hancock’s exquisite harmonic inventions by dropping his right hand into his lap and taking a sixteen-or-so bar solo with only his left hand. It was no contest, Peterson left the audience screaming and hollering, and Herbie grinning in admiration.)
Peterson’s apparent and undeniable prowess notwithstanding, Jamal was always my man. He had dynamics, fresh arrangements built as much on vamps and poly-rhythms as on harmonic alterations. Jamal brought in a new type of swing, pre-figuring (and some would even argue, establishing the foundation) for what became known as modal jazz.
But I loved Jamal’s sound for another reason beyond the obvious. In Vernel Fournier, Jamal had a hell of a New Orleans drummer. When they played “Pinciana” I intimately knew that syncopated beat from many an hour spent at secondlines in the street.
All of the above is just an introduction for this week’s contemporary feature: Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander. Alexander has what we would call beaucoup (plenty) albums both of straight ahead jazz as well as those with a Caribbean flavor, especially a few that are built on ska and reggae songs in general and two albums dedicated to the music of Bob Marley. If I were doing a proper retrospective or even a quick introduction to the career of Monty Alexander, I would be much more expansive in my selections.
But Monty has a new album called Uplift and it is truly upful. As soon as I heard it, I was smitten. I said damn, they’re swinging hard as a tire, a rope, and a tree down by the old swimming hole, i.e. irresistibly. And the arrangements, the hide and seek with the melody, the harmonic variations, the shifting tempos, the vamping bass lines. Damn, it was a first class jump up, dead out of the Jamal school except Monty is playing like a man possessed, or like Peterson dueling Hancock.
And then I checked that the drummer was Herlin Riley, who is internationally known for his long stint as Wynton Marsalis’ drummer. Many years ago back in another century I had the opportunity to produce a recording session on which Herlin was included. I believe it may have been his first major recording.
Two things always impressed me about Herlin. One was that third hand that you don’t see but you definitely hear in his superb and seemingly endless supply of rhythm figures. Two was Herlin’s ability to keep time while doing those embellishments. Unless you’ve tried your hand at drumming, you have no idea how hard it is to play some of the rhythm patterns Herlin casually drops. Plus, he’s a sneaky drummer, he’s got a bag full of licks and tricks whether playing with brushes, mallets or sticks, or for that matter with just his hands—you ought to see him work a tambourine.
Listen to Herlin doing the drum solo on “Work Song,” listen at how he keeps that sock cymbal working on the basic beat even as he’s dropping bombs right, left and all in between. Oh yeah, and one other thing: I call Herlin the happiest drummer I know.
As Herlin plays like a demon, he’s smiling and laughing, and the joy is not just evident on his face or in his body language as he lets the rhythm rip, the joy is in the very sounds he makes.
I could just concentrate on listening to Herlin, however bassist Hassan Shakur more than holds up his end of the trio with walking bass lines that prace, sashay, strut, skip, hop and dance with unerring accuracy, thereby both freeing Alexander to go off on fancy flights as well as offering a solid foundational swing that keeps the music moving.
The first four tracks on the Mixtape are taken from a bootleg of a European performance featuring the same personnel that are on the Uplift album. The big difference between the two sessions, both of which were live recordings, is that the engineers did an outstanding job on Uplift. You can hear everything, including the delightful exclamations as Monty urges his band to ever more fanciful flights of improvisation. The acoustic bass has a solid sound, not mushy or too boomy. And you can appreciate the full aspect of the drum kit, including Herlin’s expert bass drum pedal work.
But like I said, this is Monty Alexander demonstrating the art of swinging jazz piano in a trio context. While I don’t have a favorite track the interplay between Monty and Herlin is superb on “Body And Soul,” especially Herlin’s deft use of brushes as Herlin sensitively switches back and forth between brushes and sticks depending on what dynamic Alexander is employing at a given point in the song.
For an example of Alexander’s tremendous harmonic improvisation I would probably single out his take on “No Woman No Cry.” But all of these selections are recommended without reservation.
Oh yeah, one quick trivia note: hearing Louis Armstrong who performed in Jamaica when Alexander was a youngster was the experience that hooked Alexander on playing jazz. Decades later, Louis Armstrong is probably smiling his famous smile as he looks down and hears the wonderful sound of Monty Alexander leading a hard swinging jazz trio.
Play this Mixtape for people who thought jazz was dead. Guarantee you the Monty Alexander Trio will wake them up.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Monty Alexander Mixtape Playlist
At Klavierfestival Ruhr
01 “Fly Me To The Moon”
02 “No Woman No Cry”
03 “Close Enough For Love”
04 “Work Song”
05 “One Mint Julep”
06 “Body And Soul”
10 “Sweet Georgia Brown”
This entry was posted on Monday, May 23rd, 2011 at 2:30 pm and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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