Friday, December 16, 2016

Music: One, Stop, Full House for Monty's Express

Jamaicans filled the Jamaica Pegasus hotel’s Grand Ballroom in St Andrew last Sunday evening - necessitating the provision of additional seating -  to take in the long overdue performance by jazz pianist Monty Alexander. All at J$10,000 a head (approximately USD 90), signalling that the ten- year wait - at least partly occasioned by a less than happy experience on his last return - had created huge pent-up demand for the Jamaican-born, US-based  pianist and bandleader.
Monty Alexander (right), with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Obed Calvaire (partly hidden)

He was ably supported - and in one instance, very nearly upstaged - by the Harlem-Kingston Express, the Grammy-nominated embodiment of his twin passions for American and Jamaican rhythmic expressions: Obed Calvaire on drums, Andy Brassford on Guitar, Jamicans Joshua Thomas and Karl Wright on electric bass and percussion respectively, and longtime fellow traaveller Hassan Shakur on acoustic bass - he of the show-stealing solo, more on that later.

Punctuated by personal narratives of his many and varied music and life experiences, Alexander began, after a folk interlude, with the appropriately titled "Hello". Thereafter, he memorialized idol Nat King Cole, fellow vocal legend Frank Sinatra (whose friend and club owner Jilly Rizzo gave a then nascent Alexander his proverbial big break in the early 1960s), and other heroes such as Harry Belafonte. There was even an oblique tribute to another legendary bandleader (and fellow boxing fan), Miles Davis, when Alexander referenced Rodrigo's haunting "Concierto de Aranjuez" made famous by Davis on his landmark "Sketches of Spain" album with Gil Evans.
The evening's first truly transcendent moment featured another "Caribbean transplant" in the person of saxophonist Ron Blake. Born and raised in the US Virgin Islands, Blake brought a palpable sense of empathy to his runs on Alexander's "Hurricane" which was preceded by a brief reminisicence by the pianist about the devastation of 1951 's Hurricane Charlie - which may well have informed the name of his teenage band, Monty and the Cyclones. Blake remained on stage and also accompanied another special guest, Alexander's wife, Catarina, on a wistful rendition of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song[Chestnuts Roasting]".
The show's second half saw the true high point from Shakur, wh put his bass to work on an inspired solo excursion through some r n' b/pop gems, beginning with George Benson's Give Me the Night, the theme from "Beverly Hills Cop (Axel F, by Harald Faltermeyer)" and the inimitable bass riff from Niles Rogers that informed two classics: Chic's "Good Times" and the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight", which sampled it. For good measure, and possibly to bring back the more senior audience members lost to the prior selections, he added the "Pink Panther" theme. It was the kind of unexpected and exuberant displays that great concerts, and indeed jazz concerts, are made of, and Shakur deserved the applause and tip of the hat from the leader that followed.
Alexander has placed his admiration for Bob Marley on record, literally, and it was the Gong's "Running Away" signalled the "curtain" on the night's proceedings. There was a rousing encore that included his re-working of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On", but at that point only a cruel patron could demand more, and several had already vacated their seats.  
There's no gainsaying Alexander's talents on the piano, nor his love for both his original and adopted homelands. But this exposition, by turns slick and soulful, affirmed that his first love remains the music - and audiences such as that at the Pegasus - are much the better and happier for it

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