Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander should be a more revered figure on the jazz scene than his current standing tends to suggest. Although his technical merits and his ease and grace at the keyboards are readily acknowledged, there has always been the lingering suspicion of a light-weight, cocktail lounge sensibility that has prevented him from claiming a place among the first rank of performers. This is both unfortunate and unfair. Alexander draws on a fascinating mixture of musical influences for inspiration and has had a more than usually varied career. His CV boasts around 65 albums as leader, plus some sterling collaborative work. More significantly, at each stage in his development as an artist he has shown a willingness to explore different styles and genres, with an inquisitiveness that more critically favoured artists must look upon with envy. Praised by such diverse figures as Frank Sinatra and Sly and Robbie, cult status, at least, should surround this most intriguing of jazz ambassadors.
Part of the problem is that Alexander is so adept and melodically driven a pianist that everything he touches sounds effortless and undemonstrative. This is then misinterpreted as easy listening. Also, in fairness, not all of his explorations (particularly with “World” material) have been totally convincing, and a certain hotel-lobby, tourist-trade folksiness has been occasionally discernible. However, no such problems arise on Impressions in Blue, which even in a strong year for piano albums should see Alexander finally reap his (over)due reward.
Impressions in Blue can be considered as part two of an enterprise that began last year with My America. Not only is it superior to its more than adequate predecessor, but it’s probably the most complete and satisfying recording of Alexander’s career. With this record one can see that Alexander is now in a position to offer a sort of encapsulated retrospective of the main musical strands that make up his artistic persona. These sessions are part homage, part autobiographical statement, and part impressionistic journey. What we get is a series of snapshots of various “American” musical influences. At the same time, we are invited to follow one musician’s response to that rich heritage. If this all sounds a bit conceptual, don’t fret — this is primarily a feast of relaxed and sumptuous piano playing. It simply has a more overt coherence and a greater sense of historical depth to it than some earlier projects.
The performances are structured into sections: an Introduction, Duke Reflections, Where the Trade Winds Blow, King Cole Reflections, and Way out West. The Introduction consists of a commanding version of the most famous early jazz-meets-classical composition, “Rhapsody in Blue” — here re-christened “Blue Rhapsody” — and a classical piece much loved by jazz types, Roderigo’s “Concerto De Aranjuez”, here re-titled “En Aranjuez Con Amor”. The re-labelling indicates that Alexander has taken certain liberties with these venerable items. They are still instantly recognisable and have the Alexander trademark romanticism deeply embedded in each phrase, but they mutate into something quite personal as each tune progresses. As an opening salvo, they suggest two things; firstly, the pianist’s respect for beautiful music, and secondly, a contemplative reflexivity that will characterise the whole set.
Then Alexander takes on Ellington. Two pieces, of which the second, “Creole Love Call”, is particularly delicious. A beautifully understated and bluesy reading, this has all the trademark touches — a nod towards cultural hybridity, an exquisite love song sensitivity, and a nimble but never showy execution. Having paid his respects to some canonical roots, Alexander embarks upon a West Indian Trilogy, visiting Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and the Bahamas. Of these enjoyable trips, which are perhaps the most ambitious cuts on the disc, the Guadeloupe selection, “Pointe-a-Pitre”, is the most winning. Almost nineteenth century in feel, it evokes a lost Colonial world, not in any conservative or reactionary way, but with a sense of poignancy and a poet’s sense of place and time.
Next up, Alexander turns his attention to Nat King Cole, a long-time hero and a pianist with whom he shares many attributes. From this point on proceedings become noticeably more ebullient, with humour and playfulness the order of the day. “Jumpin’ at Capitol”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “Body and Soul” are very mid-century, very typically Cole and just great fun. This is old school trio playing at its most witty and insouciant. A trifle cabaret-like, certainly, but Cole invented that style (excessive quotations and all) and Alexander follows with gusto. If it all seems a little too glib, “Body and Soul” returns us to a more dignified if no less captivating state of affairs. The latter should appeal especially to those who know Alexander mainly through his excellent work with the late Ray Brown , but the whole sequence is so full of musical virtues it should alert every listener to the still valid (and under-appreciated) legacy of the Cole trio.
A final piece of whimsy arrives in the nod to Roy Rogers that is “I’m an Old Cowboy”, for which I can offer no explanation whatsoever. It matters little, as by then an hour of enchanting piano music has flown past. A little history, a little geography, a touch of nostalgia, and plenty of wit and imagination. Too decorous for some, perhaps, but if you see poise and craftsmanship as merits rather than failings then check out Impressions in Blue. It is the work of a practitioner in his prime. With this recording, Alexander takes his place in the Big Leagues, but he does so without sacrificing any of his self-deprecating charm.