Monty Alexander – Uplift – Jazz Legacy Productions JLP 1001012, 62:55 ***1/2:
(Monty Alexander – piano; Hassan Shakur – bass; Herlin Riley – drums; Frits Landesbergen – drums (tracks 1, 5 & 6))
When putting together a jazz pianist top ten list, Monty Alexander should easily make the roll call. He’s been a first-rate player since the 1960s and effectively adapted and absorbed from the styles of Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole, Oscar Peterson and others. Although Alexander has long had his own approach which has often incorporated elements of his native Caribbean roots, he has been undervalued despite standout studio releases and memorable concerts.
It is always impressive to see/hear Alexander on stage. Uplift, his new live effort and first ever album for the Jazz Legacy Productions label, follows previous stellar Alexander concert documents such as Live! Montreux Alexander (Verve, 1976), Monty Alexander in Tokyo (Original Jazz Classics, 1979), Live at the Iridium (Telarc, 2005) and a few others. While none of Alexander’s live recordings share the same set list, most of them – including Uplift – display Alexander’s chops and creativity in straightforward circumstances. Uplift includes performances from various concert venues covering the years 2007-2010. Although no credits for locations/dates are given, producer John Lee has edited the different pieces into a unified whole which does not sound as if it was recorded at diverse places. The material is mostly pop and jazz standards such as “One Mint Julep” and “Django,” with three tunes written by Alexander, who is backed by a trio featuring bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley, who is replaced on three cuts by Frits Landesbergen.
Alexander formerly paid tribute – on the 1997 Concord Jazz project Echoes of Jilly’s – to his beginnings when he played from 1963-1967 at the New York City jazz club Jilly’s, where Frank Sinatra’s support helped boost Alexander’s fledgling career. Alexander once again compliments Sinatra on the lively opener, “Come Fly with Me,” (which also graced Echoes of Jilly’s) where Shakur adds a scintillating solo and Landesbergen and Shakur offer coordinated assistance to keep the tune rocking along.
Alexander is a good-natured artist who can make sudden changes in direction pay off, while tossing in quotes from some surprising sources. During the briskly-paced rendering of “Sweet Georgia Brown” Alexander wows the audience with citations from Thelonius Monk and Bizet’s “Carmen” while the trio retains a fast-flowing rhythm. Alexander tops that presentation on “Body and Soul,” where the pianist slips in a slinky reference to “Mary had a Little Lamb” before the threesome modifies the famous theme into a swinging waltz. Before the track is over, traces of Rossini, Strauss and Gershwin zoom by. The crowd-pleaser concludes with a Tatum-inclined outpouring.
Another tribute comes in the shape of the lovely “Django,” The Modern Jazz Quartet’s signature hit and which conveys Alexander’s feelings for bassist Ray Brown, whom Alexander worked with on Brown’s final session. Alexander begins with an unaccompanied solo akin to a respectful hymn and then bass and drums enter and the three musicians subtly shift to a mid-tempo, soulful stride. Shakur maintains a steady fluid tone reminiscent of Brown, which augments Alexander’s friendly manner.
Alexander’s three originals are also notable. “Renewal” was initially issued on Alexander’s religiously-tinted collection The River (Concord Jazz, 1985). The current translation is earthier and more contemporary with Riley sustaining an urban beat as Alexander threads in several familiar musical bits. “Hope” was earlier found on Alexander’s live jazz/reggae hybrid Goin’ Yard (Telarc, 2001) but Alexander transcends the older version. “Hope” starts with a slowly ticking rhythm and Alexander’s fluttering keyboard, moves to a pop music orientation and eventually a reggae flavor. “Hope” is not the best thing on the album but it is an agreeable fusion of Jamaican vibes and jazz. The band closes with a two-part medley of Alexander’s new composition, the island-seasoned “Home” and Blue Mitchell’s like-minded “Fungii Mama,” which has been in Alexander’s set list off and on as far back as the late seventies. Alexander borrows a line or two from “The Flintstones” main theme as well as others to deliver an affecting end to the party.
1. Come Fly with Me
2. One Mint Julep
4. Sweet Georgia Brown
5. I Just Can’t See For Lookin’
7. Body and Soul
— Medley —
10. Fungii Mama
— Doug Simpson