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Monty Alexander Trio brings joy to Longwood Gardens

The combination of Longwood Gardens’ beautiful gardens with America’s greatest treasure, jazz music, is truly a premier pleasure. Saturday evening was nothing less than a stellar way to kick off an early valentine weekend celebration when Longwood welcomed the Monty Alexander Trio as part of their superb jazz series.

Walking through the gardens at Longwood prior to the show, you cannot imagine a more romantic setting walking through the gardens, holding a glass of wine and taking in the intoxicating smell of flowers in bloom in the dead of winter. On display at Longwood was the “Orchid Extravaganza,” which features over 4,500 orchids and continues until March 31.

At 8 o’clock sharp, the Monty Alexander Trio entered the grand ballroom to a soldout audience of jazz fans.

“It’s nice to have a job, and we’re glad you could be here,” Alexander said.

Joining him onstage were drummer Jason Brown and bassist J.J.Wiggins. Within moments, the swinging trio had the whole audience tapping their feet and swaying to the soulful jazz music. All three musicians did nothing but smile all evening.

Alexander was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1944 and took to the piano at age 5. At the young age of 10, his parents took him to see Nat King Cole, and shortly after that, they had the pleasure of seeing Louis Armstrong when these two men came to Jamaica to perform. These two artists had a strong effect on him at a young age. He said he loved the happiness they could bring to people and he admired how they styled their songs.

As a young teenager, Alexander formed his own dance band, Monty and the Cyclones, and in 1958 made his first recording with that combo. At age 17, in 1961 he emigrated to Miami and shortly after his arrival was discovered by Frank Sinatra’s closest friend, Jilly Rizzo, who flew him to New York to play in his club at West 48th Street. Jilly’s Bar was a celebrity hangout for showbiz folks, mob figures and Sinatra. After this discovery, Alexander’s career soon skyrocketed; he remained the house pianist at Jilly’s for the next five years. In the years following, Alexander would perform with Sinatra, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Miles Davis and various other jazz greats of the time.

On Saturday evening, Alexander and his trio performed original compositions “You Can See,” “Hurricane Come and Gone” and “Renewal.” Later in the performance, he featured the song “Smile,” which was written by Charlie Chaplin and made famous by Nat King Cole; this song brought lots of applause from the audience. During the performance, Alexander recalled how his parents had lots of records playing in the house while he was growing up and “Smile” was a special memory from his past.

One hour into the performance, there was a brief intermission, and then the trio opened up the second half of the concert with Bob Marley’s song “No Woman No Cry” and weaved in a few lines of the song “Wade in the Water.” Alexander had a wonderful way of combining his Jamaican roots, jazz and swing throughout the evening program. He continued with “Never Let Me Go” made famous by Nancy Wilson and Nat King Cole followed by “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington. Alexander continued with his original composition “Eleuthera” inspired by a trip to the Bahamas.

The trio ended the evening with “Day-O” (also known as “The Banana Boat Song”), Alexander singing and then playing his melodic, which is an instrument that is like a harmonica with a small keyboard. Throughout the evening Alexander shared few words, only to introduce each song, but towards the end of the performance, he spoke of spending time with Sinatra. He recalled being in his company, sometimes into the wee small hours of the morning, playing the piano for all his friends in New York.

Closing out the evening, Alexander and his trio performed a lively version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” sending the entire audience to a happy place of love and joy.

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