VAIL — At his New York City home, Monty Alexander takes a break from packing for an upcoming whirlwind of European gigs to jump on the phone for an interview. Just as cordial, eloquent and friendly as expected, the iconic Jamaican pianist pauses for a moment when asked how often he plays in his free time these days.
“I’m ashamed to say not very often,” the 70-year-old said, his smooth accent, in spite of his many years living in New York, still distinctly Jamaican. “I’m leaning against a piano right now, but I never practice much. When I was a kid at the beginning of my real relationship with the piano, I felt like this is my friend, this wonderful object. When I got to play, I thought how wonderful, it fills the room with some kind of vibration. These days I don’t play from the standpoint of technique. I have that already. I play for the joy of it. I paint a picture with music.”
Growing up inspired by Jamaican folk music and also by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, whose live performances he witnessed at a young age, Alexander sits down at the keys and is possessed by the spirit of music. His hands are guided by intuition. He’s driven, like so many of his compatriots, by good vibes.
“I’m here to uplift people,” he said. “I’m a messenger of goodwill. That is my big obligation and responsibility. I come from a tradition – when I first saw musicians performing, even before Bob Marley and the reggae explosion, they were reaching out. We used to have folk singers, calypso music. Those kinds of rhythms are joyful rhythms. Even if you’re poor and poverty stricken, there is magic to this music. It takes the pain away.”
‘THE HEARTBEAT OF JAMAICAN REGGAE AND SKA’
Although Alexander and his family moved to the United States when the pianist was still a teenager, the tradition of healing rhythms has stayed with him. He has performed with Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Morgan, to name just a few. But of all of his soaring career highlights, he said it’s not the thunder of applause from a big stage that stands out in his memory but simply the afterglow of his most recent performance.
“Every time I get off the bandstand and one person claps their hands, it makes me feel good,” he said. “My most memorable accolade is the previous gig that went well. Among them, when I was around Frank Sinatra and he’s saying, ‘kid, you’re doing great,’ or when Miles Davis said, ‘where’d you learn to play like that?’ Of course you remember that.”
In his storied career as a bandleader, Alexander has released nearly 50 records. His recent second live album with band Harlem-Kingston Express won Best Live Album at the Independent Music Awards. The recording enlisted the talent of younger Jamaican artists, revisiting the culture of his roots like never before. Even fans who have seen Alexander perform in Vail over the years are in for a one-of-a-kind treat when he and his band step onto the stage for Jazz at Vail Square Thursday night.
“I’ve been embracing my heritage in a more specific way,” Alexander said. “I’m bringing my idea of artistry on the piano, relating the jazz tradition to the heartbeat of Jamaican reggae and ska.”
While many artists would feel haggard after more than 50 years of performing, with every show, Alexander is constantly hit by a fresh wave of wonder at the opportunity to do what he loves for a living.
“I hear young players, whizzes, and you remember the first time you picked up that instrument, the joy you had in doing so. You go back to doing so, like a naïve child, just waiting to shine and express yourself,” he said. “The feeling that you had the first time you really played, to me that’s what this music thing is about. You’re back in the playpen.”
Shauna Farnell was contracted by the Vail Jazz Foundation to write this story. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.