When he was a young teen, Monty Alexander would sneak out of school and hop a bus down to Federal Records, where he joined other studio musicians, playing piano (uncredited) on dozens of early ska recordings. While his sneaking days are far behind him, Monty still loves to get together with other musicians, creating award-winning, crowd-pleasing records. His latest, “Wareika Hill: Rastamonk Vibrations,” puts a Jamaican spin on the music of Thelonious Monk. Part jazz, part ska, part reggae and part blues, it’s the kind of album that only a jazz-ska-reggae-blues master could create. My first RSS interview with Monty focused on his memories of early life in Kingston and his role in helping create the original ska sound. This time, we talked about the new album.
RSS: It’s been 44 years since you released your first album. Did you feel the same sense of excitement for this album?
Monty: My goodness. That is easy to answer because this one in particular, I have a lot more rush for this one than anything else I’ve done. The reason I’m so excited about this one is that it is connected to my heritage. A lot of things make this recording very personal even though it’s focusing on music that came from Thelonious Monk. It’s connected to my own story, and it’s something that is not typical of what I’ve ever done before. I’m not the kind of musician that plans things. I just go play, you know? And this one has a lot of forethought to the whole thing. So yes, this one gives me a big rush. Because when I think about it, it has a lot of wonderful aspects to it that is not only the music.
RSS: There are a lot of great ska-jazz artists on the scene who reinterpret jazz standards through ska, but no one has taken on the complex artistry of Monk.
Well, the good thing for me is I’m separate and apart from most of what I’ve observed other musicians have said when they talked about Monk. They spoke about him like he was somebody up on a throne, and this great genius of a person. Me, I saw him as this incredible … like definitely somebody on another level, but his quirkiness and all of that made me smile from the get-go. But the thing about it, it’s not about just tackling Monk, I’m actually drawing on memories from my childhood and of the Rastafarians.
I was 14 years old, playing in the studios [Federal Records] with those musicians who became the Skatalites, when I heard about Monk from a Rastafarian musician, one of the recording musicians in the studio, Now, since I was a kid—7, 8 years old—I had seen those men doing what they do, how they walked, how they talked, how they lived, how they approached things, and I saw that from a very young age. I could imagine Thelonious being a part of a Rastafarian group. That’s a very childlike sort of thing, but at the same time I saw through the years how unique it would be if Thelonious had met those people and had interacted with them musically. Because I hear the drum rhythm being played by the Rastafarian guys when I heard the rhythms, the Nyabinghi beat, I hear how Monk was phrasing on the piano. That’s just my deriving from that, because nobody told me that, nobody said, “Hey, check this out.” No, it’s my own 8-year-old Jamaican Monty.
Where Monk was growing up in New York from when he was 5 years old, he grew up in a neighborhood that was strongly inhabited by West Indians. So to my mind, when he wrote a tune, he’s kind of bringing up that feeling and the rhythm that you hear in what we used to call Mento music, what people call calypso. I hear the island beat in almost all those tempo songs, the ballads … I hear a calypso beat through the whole thing. That’s me.
RSS: In the album liner notes, you talk about how when you saw Monk in person—the way he walked, what he wore, his whole approach—he reminded you of the Rastas.
I just put two and two together, and that was a part of the driving force when I made the record. It reminded me of being the happy kid that I was when I first come across that music. That rhythm, by the way, which is some big part of what Bob Marley and all those other wonderful artists that came home to Jamaica and entered into this thing called reggae, was the Nyabinghi rhythm that came from Rastafarian spiritual gatherings.
Those men were up in the hill right next to my home, called Wareika Hill, And that’s where they would meet up in the hill, and you’d hear the drum rhythm. And then they’re beating it, and what they were doing was praising their interpretation of God. So it was a very religious … you put the spirituality and the sincerity and the depth of their expression together, and it’s profound. It’s like you get the goosebumps. So that’s behind my Thelonious Wareika record.
RSS: You had a lot of choice material you could have gone with. What led you to select these particular songs?
Well, I got news. I selected a whole lot more. I had a list that was like, I don’t know, twice as many songs. “This one, that one, I like this, this one,” and I had a devil of a time eliminating. Because I actually recorded them, there’s enough music that I did that is not on that album, that could begin to make a volume two.
In addition to that, I wrote a tune that I play, and I call it Elevator Buttons. It’s an experience I had when I literally rode down an elevator with Thelonious. A friend of mine was living on the same floor of the apartment building. Thelonious gets in the elevator. He doesn’t know me well. He saw me once or twice in the building and he’d kind of grunt “Hello” or something like that. I get in the elevator on the 22nd floor and he gets in the elevator. I know he did it to kind of mess my head up, but he stands in front of the elevator buttons and he presses three buttons. “Two and three is five.” He was using the buttons of the elevator to play calculator. The elevator stopped at the fifth, third and second floor. And I watched him out the corner of my eye, and I’m thinking, uh oh, he’s messing with me now, trying to make me think crazy things. Either that, or he’s just a really kooky guy. So you don’t know which he is, but he’s having fun. And when I got off at the lobby, I grunt some kind of “I’m going to go my way.” He stays in the elevator and he presses three more buttons in the elevator calculator. “Three and four is seven.” The doors close, and the elevator heads back up. [You’ll have to catch Monty live to hear “Elevator Buttons” since it isn’t on the new album.]
The musicians on the album are among the best in jazz. How do you, as the band leader, approach the recording?
They’re the greatest guys in the world. They just trust my judgment. As a kid, you dream that you’re going to lead the pack. So I just don’t play the piano, I play in the band. It is my palate. I play in the moment. Somehow, I try to gather psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, all the incentives I’ve had from the first time I put a finger on the piano, and pull all that energy together in a way sharing that with musicians that I feel are going to be able to follow me in a good way. And I try to be the best director-conductor.
Andy [Bassford, guitar; here’s the RSS interview] is one of the guys that lived the Jamaican experience. And when I’d say, “We’re going to play a one-drop, we’re going to play a rock steady rhythm here, and play it like this,” he’s right there. He knows exactly what to do because he worked with musicians in Jamaica who are that. Sometimes he looks at me like, “Uh oh, what’s Monty going to do?” Because it’s all done by the seat of your pants. That’s part of the excitement of this Isle of Kingston thing. The seat of your pants, man. You don’t know what’s going to happen in five minutes.
And you have a musician like Carl Wright, the drummer from Montego Bay. This man, he’s like a metronome, but not a machine metronome. He’s just the most rock-steady drummer. He’s a soulful human, perfect time-wise, and he’s an exciting soloist, and he’s simpatico. He’s very sympathetic. And then I have my wonderful jazz-minded, swinging drummer in the tradition of Sonny Penn or somebody from the swinging jazz bands, or playing bebop. Then have a bass player that’s right out of Ray Brown and Jimmy Blanton. When I say, “All right, we’re going to play this tune and here’s the tempo,” and I give an introduction, and the next thing you know, off we go, man, and it’s the most thrilling thing. And it’s not perfect because even the mistakes that we make are perfect. How can I put it? Perfect mistakes.
And you have a lot of featured artists come in and perform on this, as well, so that also adds a whole different level.
Yeah. I wanted to introduce that to musicians who I consider open-minded, because when you say to the sophisticated, educated, academic people who are now teaching jazz in the school, and you say the word reggae, or you say the word Jamaica, they all have some kind of impression about it. “Oh yes, we go to Jamaica and wear a silly hat,” and maybe they go score some ganja, and they don’t know the depth of what led up to this thing called reggae, which is a spiritual thing at its greatest when Bob Marley was writing some of those songs. It’s a spiritual experience.
So those guys that I’ve invited, John Scofield, who is a master guitarist musician. Miles Davis loved this man. Open-minded guy who loves everything. Joe Lovano [tenor sax solo on Green Chimneys] is another very open-minded musician. I saw him playing with musicians from Cuba, from Puerto Rico … He was playing music connected to his Italian heritage, music by Caruso. I mean, this guy’s wide open about music. And when he came in the studio and he realized what was going on, the man got excited and he started to play. Every note that came out of his saxophone was like Thelonious Monk on his saxophone.
When we were talking earlier [not part of the interview], it sounded as if you said that you don’t read music.
I don’t read music—
[Interviewer’s eyes pop out of his head]
—but I had a few piano lessons as a kid. But I was never a good student. And after a few lessons I just ran away when the nice teacher lady rapped me on the knuckles a few times because I didn’t hold my hands right. I’m what, 7 years old? And then another time when I was about 10 years old. Another teacher, but I never wanted some lady to be telling me how to play the piano because I was already having fun playing boogie-woogie. I learned music by listening and watching the older guys, and that’s how I picked up my music. I am not a hundred percent self-taught because I watched and picked it up. Nobody showed me. I am close to what you would say my own teacher because I just knew what to listen to. And when I would play it, it came out Monty Alexander.
That’s why I never was playing on records with a lot of other people. When a singer comes to me and says, “Hey, Monty, I want you to play for me on my record and accompany me,” these days the first reaction I have is to run, run like hell because that’s where complicated music and all the strange time signatures, and I blast those and a lot of other things. But because I preferred to just stick with whatever I could do, and that’s been my whole career.
And what a career. “Wareika Hill” is your 75th album.
The first time I made a record in 1965*, it was a great excitement, needless to say. And then the back of the record, of all things, the one and only Mr. Sinatra, he writes, “The kid is a gas.” So that was the beginning of my career, and I’m just a musician. I don’t read music, I just go play, and that’s what’s held me all through these years. I’ve played with all the great jazz men—Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie—I’ve played with these people and the connection with Jamaica was very minimal with those people. But I’m proud carrying the Jamaican spirit all through the years, and know I’ve done it in a way which I’m proud.
The “Wareika Hill: Rastamonk Vibrations” musicians:
Monty Alexander – piano
J.J. Shakur – acoustic bass
Jason Brown, Obed Calvaire – drums
Andy Bassford – guitar
Karl Wright – drums/percussion
Leon Duncan, Courtney Panton – electric bass
Junior Wedderburn, Abashani Wedderburn, Bongo Billy – Nyabinghi drums
Earl Appleton – electric keyboards
Ron Blake, Wayne Escoffery – tenor sax
Andrae Murchison – trombone
Joe Lovano – tenor sax solo on Green Chimneys
John Scofield – guitar solo on Bye-a
Check out the official Thelonious Monk website store, and just because I love hats, here’s a 1-minute video about Monk’s hats.
*He’s referring here to “Alexander the Great” and not the scores of singles he played on as an uncredited studio musician in the early days of ska, nor the singles he made with his early band, Monty and the Cyclones.
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