The cold climes of New York City often seems to make the idea of taking in the music of a great jazz musician from a tropical climate, somehow makes you think the music will warm you up, and be all the more inviting; even if he isn’t playing Caribbean jazz. So my trip to Birdland, named after the great jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, to experience Jamaican Jazz pianist Monty Alexander and his band, my third time seeing him live, pay musical tribute to the ‘Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra and soulful crooner Nat King Cole did just that.
Alexander’s two sets at Birdland, the mid Manhattan westside restaurant and night club were a potpourri of musical genres. He infused his performances with calypso inflections, a little bit of samba, a taste of ska, jazzed up reggae and rock steady, the traditional mento classic ‘This long Time Gal’ R&B’s the Stylistics’ ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’, Lloyd Price’s ‘Stagger Lee’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train.’
Monty Alexander’s quartet consisting of Winnard Harper on drums, Lauren Cohen on Bass and Bobby Thomas on hand drums and Monty Alexander on vocals and piano warmed me up on a cold westside Manhattan night, but not the way you might think. Growing up in Jamaica jazz was a staple both on radio and in my house. Despite the cold incubation origins of Jazz on North American shores hearing it in Jamaica gave the music a warm and tropical feel.
Monty introduced himself by reminiscing about his origins in Jamaica and his experience on seeing both Nat Cole and Louis Armstrong perform live on the island. He revisited this theme throughout both his sets with his strategically time narrative of his history. Recounting his youthful fortune as a fourteen year old teenager arriving in Miami, where he was introduced to music royalty, playing at a club called Jilly’s owned by Jilly Rizzo, a mobster friend of Frank Sinatra. When he played Jilly’s New York City the ‘Chairman of the Board’ who often frequented the club encouraged his piano playing.
The first set opened with Bobby Thomas’ hand drum expose. Thomas’ rapid fire hand movements, subtle and deft hand drum touches set the tempo for steady groove build up to a musical stew being brewed throughout both sets. The bluesy feel of some of the songs at times gave way to a scat intro, and then shifted into rhythmic pattern of bass-lines interchanging between Monty’s magic on the ivories and jazz and blues guitar riffs. Monty’s virtuoso piano playing dexterity created the rhythmic moods that held the musical experience together. As he tickled and swished across the ivory piano keys in slow and sometimes escalating melodic fashion creating crashing crescendo yet always caressing the piano keys. His piano playing set the backdrop for both the mood and tempo while throughout both sets it conjured images and, in my mind brought back traces of the many great jazz and Rhythm and Blues men whose music I grew up listening to in Jamaica. There were shades of Booker T & the MG’s ‘Time is Tight’ and ‘Green Onions’, Earl Garner piano riffs, Wes Montgomery’ melodic guitar playing and Jimmy Smith organ fluidity.
Towards the winding down of each set after completing the Nat King Cole tribute segment he segued in to his segment on ‘Reflections of Frank Sinatra.’ Monty introduced James Defrancis, a young man with an eerie Sinatra-like vocal style. Defrancis’ poised and controlled renditions of Sinatra’s signature hit and a Cole Porter classic “Got You Under My Skin’ then ‘My Funny Valentine’ ‘Come Fly With Me’ and New York New York’ could have brought a smile to the chairman’s face.
Monty closed out of vocals on “Too Marvelous’ as he doubled back to his Caribbean roots with Bob Marley’s ‘No woman No Cry’ and ‘Get Up Stand Up’
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