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Jazz Legend Monty Alexander Brings His Swingin’ Musical Talents to the Barclay


Monty Alexander isn’t simply a great jazz pianist, but a musician who sees jazz, blues, gospel, Jamaican folk music, reggae, calypso, the Great American Songbook and more as a means of expression. Photo courtesy of Monty Alexander / Joe Martinez
 

The world over knows June 6, 1944 as the historic date known as D-Day, when the Allied Forces invaded Nazi-occupied France.


Something else occurred on that date, across the Atlantic, in Kingston, Jamaica, not of historical importance but of significant cultural impact: the birth of Montgomery Bernard Alexander who, by age 17, had already made a name for himself as jazz pianist Monty Alexander.


Alexander arrives at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sept. 28 for a one-night performance of the Monty Alexander Trio. Since his first performance in Los Angeles in 1969, the legendary jazz musician has visited Southern California on numerous occasions – most recently at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2019, Moss Theater in Santa Monica in 2018 and the Hollywood Bowl as part of the 2016 Playboy Jazz Festival. And, whenever he’s touring the West Coast, the Catalina Jazz Club is always a regular stop.


This week’s appearance at Cheng Hall, though, is his first time in Irvine. Joining Alexander and forming the Monty Alexander Trio are Luke Sellick on acoustic bass and Jason Brown on drums.

Monty Alexander, center, with his current trio – Luke Sellick on bass (left) and Jason Brown on drums (right) – at the famed Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London in July 2023. Photo courtesy of Monty Alexander / Robert Crowley
The Monty Alexander Trio

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

Cost: $30-$90

Contact: 949-438-6463, thebarclay.org

Alexander also plays melodica and sings, and his repertoire encompasses an almost dizzying variety of genres that includes jazz, bebop, blues, gospel, the Great American Songbook, reggae, calypso and the folk music of his native Jamaica.


Music apparently came naturally to Alexander.


“My mother wanted to have the piano so she could maybe play piano as a pastime,” he said in an interview with Culture OC. “ And the piano was there kind of minding its own business and I found this great instrument that became my favorite toy as a kid, and I go there and play noises, try to get attention, and the piano became a way for me to express myself, and it wasn’t long before I started picking out melodies – Christmas carols, nursery rhymes, what have you.”


By age 5 he was entertaining relatives and neighbors, and a year later he was taking his first piano lessons. As Alexander relates, he didn’t just mimic familiar tunes. “I had an ear. I started to develop my ear. And when I started hearing music, I heard all kinds of music. I didn’t hear a genre of music, this type of music, I just heard music coming from heaven, from everywhere.”


In Jamaica, he said, “we had one radio station, and they would play some popular music from America. We would hear blues from New Orleans, we would hear classical music, we would hear semi-classical music, and then a little jazz every now and then, whatever that means – because I’m still trying to figure out what jazz means. So for me, it was then, it’s still now just the same attitude. I like to think I love music – all kinds of music, as long as it’s nice music.”

LISTEN: Worshiping Satchmo and Rubbing Elbows with Duke

At age 14, Alexander was playing at local clubs in Kingston and made his first recordings, some as the leader of a group called Monty and the Cyclones. By the age of 17, he was performing in Miami. In 1962, at age 18, Alexander made the United States his home, settling in New York City. Within a year, he was ensconced in the Big Apple’s jazz scene, working regularly at Jilly’s, the West 52nd Street piano bar owned by Frank Sinatra’s close friend, Jilly Rizzo.


Throughout the 1960s, Alexander met, interacted with, befriended and performed with the likes of Miles Davis, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson, and in his prolific career, he has worked with many of the foundational creators of jazz and pop music such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Tony Bennett and Sinatra.


Because of this and because of his more than 75 recordings as a leader and sideman, Alexander is cited in the definitive book “The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time” as the fifth-greatest jazz pianist ever.


The legendary musician reflected on his life and career, starting with being asked how he approaches putting together a set list for his performances.


Alexander’s musical career has spanned more than 60 years, and he’s still racking up concert appearances and recordings. On Sept. 28, he’ll appear at the Irvine Barclay Theatre for the first time in his storied career. Photo courtesy of Monty Alexander

“That question is a little daunting,” Alexander said. “Why? Because I have so, so many songs, in my head, in my heart, that I love to play – coming from, name it, you know?


“I have to sort of get quiet with myself and focus on whatever it is I want to play. But what usually happens is I make a kind of list. When I get to the piano and I see the lovely people sitting out there – man, I change the whole thing. And I go over the best way to make a list.


“I tap into spontaneity and that inspiration of the moment, you know, and then I’ll choose something, and it could be one of my own compositions, or a Duke Ellington piece, it could be a Jamaican calypso. Inspiration is what lets that set unfold. Yep. And I would like to think, just like I did two nights ago at the University of New Hampshire, it just flows, and it’s a spiritual thing. I can’t explain it other than that it’s a mystery, it’s magical, and it’s a thrill to tap into this force where you just feel good.”

LISTEN: ‘Good’ Music? ‘It’s All Good…’

Have his life and career evolved in phases, or has it been a continuous stream or thread?


“It’s one continuum of phases – let’s put it that way. Every time I look at the piano, it’s like a new phase – like, wait a minute, I have to reinvent who I am, what I am, because when I play music, it’s like a life experience. I’m like a nutcase when I talk like this (but) it’s really, really like what I feel. It may not make sense, but it’s really true.


“You asked if it’s in phases, and it’s a continuum of phases. That’s what I can say, because I have so many experiences to draw on, ’cause life itself is what inspires me. I could be remembering when I was 9 years old, or remembering certain people, and it never gets boring. Every time I play, it’s the first time, in a way.”


Alexander refers to his life and career as “quite a story.”


“I’m proud that I survived the wars of this profession, music playing,” he said. “I’m still loving being a musician, and I’m loving coming to Irvine in a few days, and looking forward to it.”

Fun facts about Monty Alexander
  • Alexander is a perennial favorite at jazz venues and festivals worldwide. Since 1976, he has appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival 23 times.

  • In 1964, at age 20, Alexander recorded his first album, “Alexander the Great,” for Pacific Records in Los Angeles. The energetic, upbeat recording concluded with “Blues for Jilly.”

  • In the mid-1970s, Alexander formed a group consisting of John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums that created a stir on the jazz scene in Europe. The group’s most famous collaboration is “Montreux Alexander,” recorded during the Montreux Jazz Festival in July of 1976.

  • In 2000, Alexander was awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Musgrave Medal, and in January 2023, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Jamaica (OJ).

  • Alexander said a documentary about his life and music, called “The Monty Alexander Movie,” that’s being produced in the U.S., Europe and Jamaica, is “almost finished. They’re putting things together.”


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