Monty Alexander Trio – Montreux Alexander – MPS Music 0210986MSW (2016) stereo vinyl, 45:40 ****1/2:
Jamaican pianist wins over Montreux in 1976, and the performance gets a sonic upgrade.
(Monty Alexander – piano; John Clayton – doublebass; Jeff Hamilton – drums)
Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander emerged on the music scene as a teenager in Miami. There he played with Frank Sinatra, and met Ray Brown and Milt Jackson. He recorded three albums with Jackson and one with Dizzy Gillespie. He toured and played with Ernest Ranglin, Bennie Golson, Jimmy Griffin and Frank Morgan. But he came into his own in the seventies when he teamed with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton. When The Monty Alexander Trio performed at the 1976 Montreux Jazz festival in 1976, the jazz world took notice.
A jazz musician is often evaluated by live performances. Jazz festivals provide an incentive to stand out in front of their peers. The Monty Alexander Trio -Montreux provided an opportunity for the Jamaican pianist to make a name for himself. The trio (John Clayton on doublebass and Jeff Hamilton on drums) was making their major festival debut at the 1976 Montreux. It was not an easy task following the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band and preceding the Stan Getz Quartet. That set was captured live and now is available on audiophile stereo vinyl from MPS. The artistic impact of Alexander can be heard on the sparkling blues groove intro to Ahmad Jamal’s “Nite Mist Blues”. Shifting to his first solo, the right notation is grandiose. Clayton and Hamilton (on brush cymbal) stay with him through sudden tempo shifts. The second piano solo soars with a forceful athletic technique. Then, a brisk up tempo break adds a hard-driving element to the dynamics. The jam slows enough for Clayton to contribute a deft solo. His timing is impeccable, and a lively segue ensues featuring percussive riffs on the piano, Each song has a unique start. “Feelings” (the Morris Albert pop song) begins with a soulful hook. The lounge singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys sarcastically asks “…Does anyone really need to hear “Feelings” again? The answer is absolutely yes when it is played as a jazz number. Alexander injects some rhythmic nuances reminiscent of his roots. His solos are exciting, demonstrating aggressive precision and chord modulation. Clayton matches him with a funky plucking bass. The song ends in a slow fade. It is clear that this trio can build to a resounding crescendo and move into hushed tones with relative ease.
Taking on a masterful composer like Duke Ellington seems to inspire Alexander on “Satin Doll.” He unleashes a no-holds-barred boogie-woogie intro that is scintillating. The sprightly exchange with Clayton is rewarding. The trio shifts into medium groove to embrace the familiar melody. But the arrangement also features syncopation, up-tempo transition and melodic “themes within the theme”. Again the alternating of furious piano runs and quiet trio moments give this standard a new life.
As Side 2 kicks in, it is obvious that things are heating up. John Clayton’s arrangement of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” is brilliant. Alexander’s sparkling combination of prominent chords and jazzy trilling provide an interesting shading to the jam. Hamilton’s deft touch serves as a cohesive anchor. Clayton shines on an extended double bass solo. Additionally the variety of punctuated three instrument stops gives a different feel to the arrangement. For extra measure, Alexander throws in a couple of bars from “Caravan”.
The embrace of gospel-tinged blues permeates “Drown In My Own Tears”. Standard blues chord progressions mix with soulful melodic reverence. It combines the essences of jazz and gospel with heartfelt emotion. A surprising finale is a souped-up march-time cover of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. It continues in the gospel mode, but adds a fair dose of swing. Alexander and Hamilton (can’t get any more Americana than that) enjoy a playful call and response that precedes a colorful piano solo. The trio explodes in a big finish that excites the audience. They know a good set when they hear one!
The vinyl 180-gram re-mastering manages to capture live theatre natural acoustics, but adjusted to reflect a cleaner technological mix. The higher-register piano notes are crisp and have the correct amount of measured percussive impact. There is a replica of the original analog tape sleeve and informative album liner/recording notes.
Side 1: Nite Mist Blues; Feelings; Satin Doll
Side 2: Work Song; Drown In My Own Tears; Battle Hymn Of The Republic
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