There is something definitively sunny about Monty Alexander.
The 69-year-old US-based jazz pianist is the star turn in the Opera Jazz series slot, which takes place at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv on January 17 (10 p.m.). A good time is assured when Alexander takes the stage along with bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Obed Calvaire.
While Alexander is known for his jazzy exploits, in truth he feeds off a multitude of musical sources and genres, many of which flow through his homeland of Jamaica. Take, for example, his 2006 release Concrete Jungle: The Songs of Bob Marley, which is a celebration of songs written and made famous by Alexander’s late compatriot, reggae king Marley. That was preceded by his 1999 album Stir It Up – The Music of Bob Marley.
In fact, Alexander grew up on a rich musical palette, including the sounds of big bands led by trumpeter and vocalist extraordinaire Louis Armstrong and the velvety crooning of singer Nat King Cole. Alexander clearly does not differentiate between genres and styles and just lets the sounds and vibes wash over him to his heart's delight.
“To me, it was just music, all kinds of music,” he says, adding that it came at him from all directions. “I heard local folk music in Jamaica and the pop music of the time on the radio and easy-listening stuff. I didn't think, ‘Oh this is jazz or this is classical.’” That eclectic mindset also applied to Alexander's musical education.
“I took some classical piano lessons, but I wasn't really classically trained but I heard the great music by, say, Bach and Beethoven, just enough to know that was something really special. I just soaked up all kinds of music. And, of course, the piano was especially valuable to me because, from the age of three or four, that's where I would go to express myself.
I'd annoy people with my playing around on the piano, but I had a good time,” he laughs.
It was anything goes right from the start, and nothing appears to have changed in the intervening six-plus decades.
“I just enjoyed anything I could play from the beginning, and that has sort of been the theme of my whole life.
I've always been in that state of mind.
The music has always been something that made me feel good; and when I realized that people were responding, most times, to that same thing, I thought this is something wonderful.
And when I got paid for playing music the first time, when I was about 15, I couldn't believe that, either,” he recounts.
Alexander began immersing himself in jazz piano at the age of 14. That first paid gig was a jazz show, but it could have been anything, as long as Alexander and the audience dug it.
“It could just as well have been polka music because I just love to play.
Jamaicans love all sorts of things – the beat coming out of New Orleans, and then there was the dawn of rock and roll and Elvis Presley came on the scene, and I liked that, too. I liked all of it, and that makes me a kind of an unusual character. But to this day, I don't like to call myself a jazz musician – I just like all kinds of music,” he explains.
Once Alexander got going, there was no stopping him. That first paid gig was shortly followed by a berth as director of the Monty and the Cyclones dance orchestra, which played in clubs across Jamaica.
Alexander's jazz muse was given a significant boost when he went to concerts by Armstrong and Cole at the Carib Theater in Kingston.
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When the Alexander family moved to Miami, Florida, that also helped move the young pianist's jazz career along nicely. In 1962 he relocated to New York and started to play at Jilly Rizzo's jazz club in Manhattan, where he performed with Frank Sinatra. He also worked with and befriended celebrated vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bass player Ray Brown. He later recorded with Jackson in 1969 and subsequently recorded with Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis as leader.
When Alexander takes the stage next Friday, the audience will no doubt be struck by the pianist's bonhomie and his positive vibes.
“You want the music grooving and swinging, and the rhythm is such an important part of it and making the music come alive, not just playing it.
Playing the music is one thing, but making it live is the most important thing. You have to put your heart and soul into it,” he asserts.
Late iconic trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was another larger-than-life character in the jazz world, and Alexander recorded and performed with Gillespie in the late 1970s. Other members of the jazz pantheon who have enjoyed Alexander's footloose and fancy-free sideman services include saxophonist Johnny Griffin, drummer Ed Thigpen and saxophonist Benny Golson.
Alexander has refused to be bound by convention or rules all his life.
“I would prefer to play [1930s-1940s blues style] boogie woogie than Bach,” he recalls. “I had a mental block about reading music.
When I was a child and my teacher said I had to read some chart and play it perfectly, I wouldn't do it.
That's why I've shied away from playing with singers because they always give you music to read, and I don't do that.”
Some musicians might not look too kindly upon a pianist who eschews written music, but Alexander has done all right for himself without working from scores.
“I had a pretty good idea, so I found myself playing behind Frank Sinatra on a couple of occasions, so I kept pretty hot company from the age of 19,” he says.
Fifty years on, Alexander is still pretty hot himself, providing audiences with a musical experience to remember and sending them home with a smile.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il