Triple Treat-s, Great Piano duos & the Concord Years
Most of Alexander’s 15 Concord recordings between 1978 and 1996 presented him in swinging trio contexts; five dates with Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis; a reunion with Clayton and Hamilton; a meeting with Clayton and Ed Thigpen titled The River that addressed spirituals and hymns also containing a track that is a fans' favorite original composition The River.
During these years, he also documented an inspiring solo recital at Maybeck Recital Hall for Concord; conversational duo encounters with Ranglin in 1980 and with Clayton in 1985 for MPS; and an impeccable one-off with bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and drummer Grady Tate for Soul Note.
He was a member of the first iteration of Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra in the late 1980s and in 1987 he played with Saxophone Colossus Sonny Rollins in New York City.
In the early '80s he plays piano duo concerts, most notably with Tommy Flanagan (pictured below) and Randy Weston
Monty and Tommy Flanagan duo
München; Philip Morris Super Band: Milt Jackson (vib) Monty Alexander (p) Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (b) Ed Thipgen (d) Ernestine Anderson 1984 "In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down"
Listen to: Ernestine Anderson "Never Make Your Move Too Soon" (1980, Concord)--a fan's favorite collaboration from those years...
Monty and Randy Weston taking a bow after their duo concert in Montreux in 1988.
RAY BROWN TRIO - Wien (Austria), April 24, 1988
Monty Alexander (pno), Herb Ellis (gt), Ray Brown (bs).
01. TO EACH HIS OWN
02. I WANT TO BE HAPPY
03. BODY AND SOUL
04. F.S.R. (= For Sonny Rollins)
05. LOOK UP (p solo)
06. BUT NOT FOR ME
07. 'ROUND MIDNIGHT (p & b only)
Monty Alexander, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, 1986
"Accompong" (M. Alexander)
Snap shot with long time friends.
From left: Ed Thigpen, George Benson, Monty, John Clayton, brothers Jimmy and Percy Heath, Monty's brother Larry, and Milt Jackson.
Skamento. What’s the story behind that song?
ALEXANDER: The original title of the song I composed 35 years ago, and it was called Jamento. It was a just word I coined, I said I like this word, I made it up. The J-A. Take the word Jamaica. Jazz is there, J-A. And mento is this music that most people call calypso, folk songs in Jamaica, that’s what musicologist call mento. Which is good. So I updated the tune, I updated Jamento, and I started to play it instead of just with the mento rhythm, I put the ska, which is something very, very indigenous and very natural to all of us Jamaican people, and that’s how it became Skamento. I brought it back to life because I love playing it because every time I play it, it reflects the time of when that the music was being prevalent,you heard it all over, every calypso in the song we play it on. That’s what Skamento is, a simple tune that brings up that experience. Skamento is my youth, my life, my Jamaican coming up before popular rocksteady, reggae and all that stuff hit the world, before Bob came from Nine Mile. I know that there are ska-philes around the world and I would be nice to know that that song got across to them and they all started playing it. I would be so delighted.
(Reggae, Steady, Ska Interview)
Monty plays his original composition, Eleuthra, alongside Billy Taylor; this was recorded in a Connecticut state park in the fall of 1984 and broadcast in 1985 by Bravo on the program 'Jazz Counterpoint w/Billy Taylor
Monty played the piano on the film score of BIRD (1988),
the biopic produced and directed by Clint Eastwood based on the life of Charlie "Bird" Parker.
Listen to the tracks:
"Lester Leaps In"
"I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me"
"All of Me"
"This Time The Dream's On Me"
When did your association with Ray Brown begin?
MONTY ALEXANDER: It began around 1966 or 1967. I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better. He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar. I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends….So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company. Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.” I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again. But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing. They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club. The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?” Ray said, “Yeah.” We started playing. And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too. It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music. We just played some blues. Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that. This was 1968.
When was the last time you played with him?
ALEXANDER: We made what probably was his last recording. He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc. We were all very happy to be together. We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe. We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band - and we loved the band.
And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.
ALEXANDER: With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it. Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio. He would have a trio. Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat. We made about five CDs for Concord. We were playing and having a good thing.
Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician? Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002? I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.
ALEXANDER: Ray Brown was like Art Tatum. I’ll tell you why. The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible….I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning. So it was already beyond words. And Ray Brown was that. Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal. There was nothing on the planet….And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment. In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like….I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine. That’s what it was. I mean, that’s just my little parlance. To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke. He’s a king. He’s not a normal level of bass player. He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.
It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.
ALEXANDER: He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him. He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work. He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard. A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing. It was just a fat, beautiful tone. I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard. Maybe. But I couldn’t prove it. I was always astounded.
Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?
ALEXANDER: Well, the old guys were fading away also. Whether or not he used young guys is not the point. The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.
So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.
ALEXANDER: Exactly. And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength. Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance. Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.
As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?
ALEXANDER: Well, I was never a student. When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder. That was my attitude in music from the beginning. I was just so stubborn and ignorant! I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play. Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play….When I played with him….And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing. We didn’t play with him; we played for him. It was like we played together. At least, that’s what I saw and heard.
So his lessons to you were life lessons.
Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.
ALEXANDER: You said it well. It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop. It’s like the way he played. In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’! That’s what he did. You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing. He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.” The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were. Enough was enough. And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.
I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while. But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…
ALEXANDER: The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up. He never backed up a thing. To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life. He played like his life depended on that note.I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive. Because he was larger than life. Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive! This is emotional and personal. He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother. But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone. I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it. He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff. But yet, he was so busy. Larger than life, man.
Daily News (New York, New York)
The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland)
(New York, NY)
The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)
The Press-Tribune (Roseville, California)
The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)