In Conversation with Monty Alexander: On Jazz, Bob Marley, His New Album and the Importance of Music
Born in 1944, Monty Alexander is an internationally appreciated jazz pianist known for his soulful message, charismatic playing and integration of Jamaican musical expressions. Throughout his 70-year career, he has been nominated for a Grammy, awarded the Order of Jamaica and become a repeated favourite in Jazz festivals worldwide. His recently released album, Monty Alexander: The Montreux Years (Live), is a selection of live performances from the annual Montreux Jazz Festival where he has performed 23 times since 1976. I had the opportunity to talk to Monty Alexander on his musical upbringing, his love for Bob Marley, the wisdom he gained from other jazz entertainers and his attitude towards music.
Monty Alexander’s childhood in Kingston immersed him in Jamaican musical expressions: “I was personally involved when ska started; I would sneak out of school [to pursue] my love of music, and when I was 14 I was the piano player for early ska records”. Jamaica was a dynamic centre of musical expressions at this time, morphing genres like reggae, ska, jazz, mento and calypso. When influential Jamaican producers like Reid and Coxsane recorded the first recordings of ska and reggae, jazz musicians who came to the recording studio were encouraged to “keep the beat” and pronounce the rhythm in a Jamaican way to allow the music to be absorbed there. Jamaica was like a cultural melting-pot and through this involvement in its scene, Alexander learned music through life rather than technical education.
Alexander often pays homage to Jamaican musicians with his latest album, Monty Alexander: The Montreux Years (Live), which includes a jazz cover of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’. During the interview, he spoke of Bob Marley lovingly and compared him to a prophet, using the word “exhort” from the Bible to describe the importance of his music. Alexander’s cover of the anthem felt like a celebratory, spiritual resistance and echoed Marley’s imperative to keep being hopeful. Alexander seemed to resonate with Bob Marley’s attitude towards music, specifically how Marley uses music to create solidarity, inspire joy and empower people.
In the 1960s, Alexander moved to the US to pursue his musical career and performed in respected venues like Jilly’s and Playboy Club, during which Alexander befriended famous jazz entertainers in show business like Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra. Whilst he remembered this period of his life fondly as “gleaming with pearls of wisdom”, Alexander seemed to remember the less sparkling sides of the stars just as vividly: “even Sinatra, even Miles, had a side to them that wasn’t exemplary”. The abundant use of drugs and alcohol were rampant, and Alexander felt “blessed” to not get involved with this lifestyle. We talked about the disillusionment surrounding people we admire being a confusing experience, especially for a young person, and how choosing what not to be forms who we are, in being an important way of discerning what is right for us. Nevertheless, Alexander felt deeply inspired by the way these artists “shook the world when they played”.
The group chemistry of the Monty Alexander Trio and the sense that they are enjoying themselves is strongly felt in the album. When asked how he manages to achieve this group communication, Alexander simply replied that he “brings good will and respect to the group”. Even though his role as the band leader requires making musical decisions, he encourages a playful mentality and is careful “never to say 'no' or 'don’t'” to an idea, instead kindly saying “let’s try this”. He says, “I have such joy and privilege being a musician, it's a terrific thrill to have that responsibility and I make sure to have people around me who also have good will”. His notion of playing music in a group being like a “party” showed his incredibly humble and playful attitude. Much like what he learnt from Louis Armstrong, Alexander doesn’t look to music to aggrandize himself and instead wants to bring people together and have fun. He says, “Music is a mirror to reflect who you are”. This joyful nature is clearly reflected in his new album.
When asked about the story behind his composition ‘Renewal’, which was my favourite track in the album, he commented: “I was having a bad day and felt a little depressed and the piano was nearby. I went to the piano and started plunking a few notes with no plan”. At the same time, he had in mind an encouraging Bible quote that spoke to his situation: “Create in me a pure heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51: 10). He then started the tape recorder and the melody appeared, and the idea of spiritual renewal was inspiring to him. “Every time I would play ‘Renewal’ it was like renewing what’s old, [which also] immediately brings about something new”. When the melody first appears on the piano, it is played clearly, where the hard hitting simplicity of the notes speaks like a cutting redemption. Other instruments and variations then carry this melody forward and renew it in unexpected directions, for example the bowed double bass makes it take on an entirely different context and experience. “This was a spiritual song and a gift to me. It’s like even if the whole universe crashed and burned, there's a new beginning. That’s what I feel when I play ‘Renewal’ and I have to come [to the performance] with that certain attitude”.
The idea of maintaining the right attitude and good will in music was prevalent throughout our conversation, so I asked what advice Alexander would give to someone who has become too involved with having the audience in mind. He acknowledged the susceptibility of getting caught up in wanting others to like us and our music, humorously admitting that “in the beginning, I was probably as stupid as they come”. It’s a common feeling to think we are doing something for ourselves or with pure intentions but somewhere along the way, we realise that we have been derailed. “Even though we’re standing on solid ground, success can be quicksand. I think everyone wants to be noticed, all the great artists. It’s easy for young or old people to step out of the higher noble reason and get sucked into the jive. I keep trying not to be seduced and I hope I still have a good dose of staying honest to myself”. He reminds us that, “it’s a matter of staying true and remembering the reason why you were doing it in the first place. That original flame is a noble passion”. In recent decades he has tried to maintain his philosophy that music is a gift that can uplift people: “It’s a privilege that the audience is there, so if I have a trio I think of the audience as the 4th member of the trio”.
In Monty Alexander: The Montreux Years (Live), this positivity is clear to hear. Monty Alexander’s joyful music ethos, disarming personality and the group’s warm dynamic are all expressed within the album. I think the audiences that got to listen to the Montreux live performances left with their hearts happy, and the album gives us the chance, and the privilege, to repeatedly experience these performances for ourselves.
Edited by Lucy Blackmur and Talia Andrea, Music Editors