Monty Alexander Plays Nat King Cole & Sinatra

The cold climes of New York City often times seems to make the idea of taking in the music of a great jazz musician from a tropical climate, somehow makes you think the music will warm you up, all the more inviting even if he isn’t playing Caribbean jazz. So my trip to Bird land, named after the great jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, to experience, for the third time, Jamaican Jazz pianist Monty Alexander and his band pay musical tribute to the ‘Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra and soulful crooner Nat King Cole did just that.

Alexander two sets at Birdland, the mid Manhattan westside restaurant and night club were potpourri of musical genre. He infused his  performances with calypso inflections, a little bit of samba, a taste ska, jazzed up reggae and rock steady,  the traditional mento classic ‘This long Time Gal’ R&B’s the Stylistics’ ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’, Lloyd Price’s ‘Stagger Lee’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train.’

Monty Alexander’s quartet consisting of Winnard Harper on drums, Lauren Cohen on Bass and Bobby Thomas of hand congas warmed me up on a cold westside Manhattan night, but not the way you might think. Growing up in Jamaica jazz was a staple both on radio and in my house. Despite the cold incubation origins of Jazz on North American shores hearing it in Jamaica gave the music a warm and tropical feel. 

Monty introduced himself by reminiscing about his origins in Jamaica and his experience seeing both Nat Cole and Louis Armstrong perform live. He revisited this theme throughout both his sets. Recounting his youthful fortune as teenager arriving in the Miami, where he was introduced to music royalty, playing at a club called Jilly’s owned by a mobster friend of Frank Sinatra. When he played Jilly’s New York City the ‘Chairman of the Board’ who often frequented the club encouraged his piano playing.

The first set opened with Bobby Thomas hand conga expose. Thomas’ rapid fire hand movements, subtle and deft hand drum touches set the tempo for slow groove build up to a musical stew being brewed throughout both sets. The bluesy feel of some of the songs at times gave way to a scat intro, and then shifted into rhymic bass-line. Monty caressed, as he tickled and swished across the ivory piano keys in slow and sometimes escalating melodic fashion creating crashing crescendo. His piano playing set the backdrop for both the mood and tempo while throughout both sets it conjured images of many greats. With shades of Booker T (Booker T & the MG’s) Earl Garner and Jimmy Smith Monty’s virtuoso piano playing dexterity creating rhymic moods held the musical experience together. 

Monty introduced James Defrancis as he segued in to his segment ‘Reflections of Frank Sinatra’ Defrancis poised renditions of Franks’ hit the Cole Porter classic “Got You Under My Skin’ ‘My Funny Valentine’ ‘Come Fly With Me’ and New York’.

Monty closed out of vocals on “Too Marvelous’ as he doubled back to his Caribbean roots with Bob Marley’s ‘No woman No Cry’ and ‘Get Up Stand Up’