"Last January", Alexander explained in a recent phone interview, "I was talking with Telarc and they recognized the multiple facets of my musical outlook. My first musical heroes were the American movie cowboys- Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tom Mix.
"My first information of America was that frontier mentality that they, and John Wayne, epitomized. They had an archaic black-and-white, take-no-crap attitude towards life. Then they always had a song to sing afterwards. Except for Wayne, of course. He just rode off into the sunset." It comes as no surprise that Alexander leads off My America with one of Rogers’ signature songs; "Don’t Fence Me In" rocks with a bouncy, carefree piano line.
Alexander continued, "I originally intended the album to be a tribute to all the artists whose songs I covered. Then 9/11 happened it all connected. But it was not originally intended that way. I just wanted to honor artists who inspired me."
Alexander gets some help on My America from Freddy Cole, John Pizzarelli, and Kevin Mahogany. "(Recording with) Pizz and Mahogany was my idea", Alexander explained. "I’ve always appreciated their talents and I have friendships with them. Plus, they were happy to come in. Freddy Cole was an easy choice to sing (on "Straighten Up and Fly Right".) Pizz keeps that tradition of Sinatra, and especially Nat Cole, alive for new audiences (Pizzarelli does a guest vocal turn on the Sinatra classic "Summer Wind".) And Kevin has such a soulful voice that when I was cutting "Hallelujah I Love Her So" he seemed so natural to sing Ray Charles’ lyrics."
In addition to those songs, Alexander also chooses songs by the likes of James Brown ("Sex Machine" is a meeting between American soul and the rhythms of Alexander’s native land) and Marvin Gaye ("Sexual Healing"). "I’ve always been open about music", Alexander said. "I’ve always liked popular music and song, and what I’ve always tried to do is take music and do what I want to it, to add my stamp.
"With James Brown, what he did was change rhythm, he wrote a whole new book of rhythm- it spawned a whole new world, and we dance in Jamaica, so we definitely appreciate it", he cracked. "Marvin Gaye was such as gifted artist. I mean, he’d sing and women would drop, but he also touched on the social and political issues of the time."
When questioned about whether Americans take the opportunities they have for granted, Alexander replied, "Absolutely. I think that they take for granted the wonderful gifts they have: home; family; the ability to fulfill their dreams. My philosophy is ‘Look at the doughnut, not the hole.’ For me to live in the USA and pursue my dreams, I’m blessed. The overall promise of this land I adore. The promise of this land is the glue that holds us all together. It’s why I came."
Alexander’s earliest musical influences, besides the cowboys, were Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Nat Cole. "They were consummate entertainers", he reflects, "when I saw them I couldn’t tell where the musician started and the entertainer stopped. They were characters.
"Ellington, whose whole life was music, he had his (stage) character. And Cole had the image and sound, also. He always let the audience know that he was glad to be there. They were gracious and sincere with their generosity. They were actually entertaining."
Alexander continued, "Oscar Peterson comes from that tradition, also. But Cole was who really got me. He had a graciousness about him that left me spellbound. Unfortunately his musical chops get forgotten in that equation. It was as if other musicians held contempt for Cole because he liked to have a house to live in. Dizzy Gillespie told me once that his favorite accompanist was Nat Cole. And Cole himself said, ‘You can put me down for "Ramblin’ Rose", but make sure you put me down for real jazz, too.’"
Jazz Review would like to thank Monty Alexander for agreeing to this interview and Telarc records for setting up the interview.