Some might say that jazz musicians are a lot like cowboys. They’re mighty hard to fence in and often difficult to interview. You can ask them why they do what they do, but you’ll have to listen carefully for the answer. For the life of a jazz musician is written elsewhere in a series of fleeting chords, spontaneous melodies and changing rhythms.
I met Monty Alexander at the Omni Majestic Hotel one morning before his concert at Jazz at the Bistro in St. Louis. It didn’t take me long after meeting Monty Alexander to realize that he is a big cowboy fan. Perhaps it was his western shirt or cowboy boots that clued me in? However, it was his attitude about life that was far more intriguing.
"I have a philosophy and the philosophy is that all human beings: musicians, artists and even people in the workplace the best attitude you can have is the one that you had as a child," said Alexander.
Joy is a highly valued Alexander commodity. "I reach for it," he said. He also believes that "you have to work at it." Alexander is more interested in having a good time with music than anything else. Sharing, "Music is a healing force for all of us."
Alexander began playing piano at the age of four. By the time he was six or seven, he was entertaining all the visiting family members. However, formal music education never held much of an interest for this pianist.
"I’m certainly glad I didn’t go to music school, cause I would know what to do with it all. From the first time I was at the piano taking lessons, I hated it. It was a structured kind of thing. My first time there I was rebellious . . . I was able to tap into the thing when you played, you’re happy. It was the discovery of that note. I was with that note. That is what I love," Alexander said.
Melding his native Jamaican ska roots with straight-ahead jazz, Alexander would go on to be one of the most respected jazz recording artists. He has collaborated and/or performed with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, John Pizzarelli, Freddy Cole, Kevin Mahogany and many others.
Teaming up with Ernest Raglin in Rocksteady, Alexander returns back to his Jamaican roots. The album celebrates the purity of the jazz jam sessions from their early music careers and contains no electronic altering. "There’s no one overdub. No one trick. No nothing," said Alexander. Rocksteady is just two guys doing what they do best . . . finding the groove.
"We have this thing about there are no mistakes when you’re playing jazz. It’s like when we’re having this conversation. You might say something and you may not like what you said, but you said it. It’s the same with the music. Fortunately, we had people that wanted to preserve it. This is a revisit to stuff that is natural to me and Ernie. And, I put together a good team of guys who come into the studio with the right attitude and they know what to do," Alexander said.
"We never knew this music would come outside of Jamaica. We thought it was too rugged and rough and raw and primitive because the way it sounded . . . sometimes the guitar didn’t tune up, the mic was bad, and the piano was out of tune. It didn’t matter. The thing is in the music and the people outside of Jamaica fell in love with it. That’s what this record represents," Alexander added later.
However, there doesn’t appear to be any plans for an Alexander and Raglin tour. Alexander prefers to keep it simple and tends to only travel with a trio. Stating, "I’m less and less inclined to have more than three guys on the bandstand. Because, as much as I love it, it’s a hassle traveling around . . . more challenge to have that. We have a small unit and you can rock the house. Be happy with what you are doing when your just three guys. That’s what we do."
As a bandleader, Alexander prefers playing to talking. "We don’t talk music. We just play. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how it works," he said. Describing later, "I’m the quarterback. If I throw the ball, I want them to pick it up and use it well and then throw it back to me. So that’s really how we function. I guess I’ve always done that."
Just like a cowboy, don’t ask Monty Alexander what the future holds or where he’ll be in five years. He’s just a musician doing what he loves and does best - living in the moment and enjoying life. Perhaps that’s a lesson we could all learn.