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Festival Report: Day 2, NCPA International Jazz Festival, Mumbai

The Monty Alexander Quintet took to the stage on day two of the event

Sunil Sampat Nov 27, 2022

Monty Alexander.

After the highly emotional, energy-charged opening day of the NCPA International Jazz Festival with the pulsating Mingus Big Band, Day two was like the calm after the storm. It was like a soothing balm after the musical barrage on one’s senses on day one.

Monty Alexander, with his extremely subtle piano playing and arrangements, came up with an evening of jazz that had another full house eating out of his hands. It might not have been the selection of jazz that an ardent jazz buff might have wanted but with his personal and musical charm, Monty Alexander found a route to reaching the cross-section of the patrons who had filled the Tata Theatre at Mumbai’s NCPA.

In some ways, Monty Alexander is exactly like Charles Mingus in the world of jazz. Each one is musically a strong individual, each has relied on innate instinct rather than ‘education’ in his musical career and each makes an impact on the senses that is quite unique, albeit in contrasting ways. Each is just as individual as a fingerprint.

Monty Alexander is originally from the Caribbean island of Jamaica, where he learned to play piano at age four, completely self-taught and decided to play jazz at a young age when he heard and met the legend, Louis Armstrong. Some of the finest musicians in jazz are not conservatory trained; ironically, this is sometimes a boon, and they play the music flowing out from within. As the great saxophone player Charlie Parker once said, “if you haven’t lived it, it will not come out of your horn”.

Monty plays it as he has lived it, much as did Mingus. The difference in their music is much like the difference in the environment they grew up in. In the USA there has always been a hard struggle –  to this day – for the African American fighting racism. This attrition and angst is evident in the music of Mingus. On the other hand, Monty Alexander in Jamaica perhaps had a different battle on his hands. The gentler, easy-going life in the Caribbean reflects in the style and approach of Alexander’s playing. Monty comes across as a gentle, unhurried person and musician. This is the style he brought to us at the NCPA.

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From the moment Monty started playing – he opened with a piano solo – we knew it would be a sophisticated evening of jazz to follow.

The music was to be played by a quintet and Monty Alexander brought out his musicians one by one. Following the solo introduction, Joshua Thomas, playing guitar came in for one number. Thereafter, Monty played with a classic jazz trio with Luke Sellick on upright bass and a very subtle Jason Brown on drums. They played the beautiful John Lewis composition Django, a jazz classic, and a couple of songs made popular by Frank Sinatra, “Come Fly With Me” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. Sinatra was a mentor of sorts for Monty Alexander, he brought him to New York to play and changed the trajectory of Monty’s career. The trio also played “C Jam Blues” from the Duke Ellington stable and did a very nice version of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranuez”, played by several jazz groups and made famous by Miles Davis.

Monty Alexander played with a deft and subtle touch, very classy and understated.

The second half of the concert saw the introduction of Dennis Rollins on slide trombone. The band went into Jamaica’s famous reggae mode. “No Woman, No Cry” was vocalized by Joshua Thomas who now played electric bass.

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“Hurricane”, a jazz take on the calm before and the turbulence during a hurricane (hurricane Charlie) that hit Jamaica during Monty’s youth, “River”, “Exodus” and a version of the music from the Bond film “Dr. No” took the audience into the territory of familiar sound, as did a couple of calypso songs made famous by Harry Belafonte a few decades ago. They knew the lyrics and sang them out.

All in all, it was a concert played to the gallery. The Mumbai audience could not have wished for more. There was none of the hard work involved for the listener which is associated with listening to a jazz concert.

The ingredients were all pedigree. Jason Brown is one of the most subtle, classy jazz drummers one has heard in a long while. Fellow Jamaican, Dennis Rollins was a treat to hear on his swinging, rhythmic slide trombone – if perhaps he was a little underutilized, Luke Sellick and Joshua Thomas kept the music vibrant and the delicate touch of the leader, Monty Alexander on piano was very pleasing to hear.

Perhaps the hard-core jazz listener might have hoped for a session of hard swinging, up-tempo jazz… As the saying goes: You can’t please everybody!

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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