The blurb description of this set as “eclectic” isn’t quite right. This is about as straightforward and musically integrated a jazz piano trio set (albeit with extra percussionist) as is likely to be encountered nowadays. It is a very, very different proposition from the Jamaican Volksmusik recordings which recent years have added to Alexander’s astonishingly large discography. There presumably is some Caribbean influence, but jazz is spoken here rather than any different American music. Alexander wasn’t at the start a weighty player, but the slickness has vanished and an exciting cheerful facility remains, tearing through with a virtuosic sense of humour a couple of clichéd passages on a joyous version of “Work Song” where (the sometime J.J. Wiggins) Hassan Shakur adds a lot as bassist. Mark Taylor is the drummer, and Robert Thomas, Jr., is a very notable contributor on hand drum.
“Slappin’” is a blues straight out of the Oscar Peterson bag. It’s not the only title in which Peterson’s influence is strong. One big difference between the two is that for all Alexander’s considerable digital dexterity he plays cleaner or clearer lines. He hasn’t Peterson’s thirtyfingeredness with its capacity for unpredictable brilliance—running up and down the chords while improvising on them. He’s never quite so much on top of the music and never sort of collapses on it when the fingers outstrip thought and everything clogs. But in there is the sort of Bud Powell edge with which Peterson played in 1949, a resource or sort of resource missing from Alexander’s bag.
Peterson’s enormous playing machinery seldom became so purposive as on those fairly recently issued sets with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, recorded some forty years apart. Only Peterson has the fingers to try to make up for the absence of Ellis by not always well-advisedly trying to play the guitarist’s music on the piano in a trio with bass and drums. With Ellis and Ray Brown in the trio Triple Treat, Alexander performed to marvelous effect. But how far creatively, as improviser rather than brilliant accompanist and provider of piano interludes enhanced always by contributions from Brown and Ellis as the major accompanists they always were?
Lacking a depth Peterson couldn’t always demonstrate in his later public career, Alexander’s also short on what distinguishes inventive or unpredictable improvisers. This didn’t matter with Brown and Ellis, and on this set it doesn’t matter, either. There can be no doubt from the present set that Hassan Shakur (son of the very interesting pianist Gerald Wiggins) is both an outstanding bassist and also something of a student of Ray Brown capable of reminiscences of that master. Mark Taylor’s drumming fits well with Thomas’s contribution on different blocks and pans, etcetera.
Alexander is at his most original in ballads; “My Mother’s Eyes” is quite notable here (as the liner notes insist). Beside ten and a half minutes on Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song” and a stirring “Funji Mama” (composed by the hard bop trumpeter Blue Mitchell), there’s some Caribbean including Alexander’s own “Happylypso” (which segues into the Mitchell tune “Li’l’ Darlin’), He’s a thorough musician in phrasing a song, and manages always to pick up with freshness any of his routines here.
It was always a matter of getting decent people to work with him and finding repertoire which required not major innovation but technical virtuosity perfused with style and flair. Other than in ballad playing, already mentioned, Alexander shines where it’s unlikely very many other pianists could perform other than badly.
For all its exercise of all his pianistic talents, this CD probably presents Monty Alexander at his very best.