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Captured on the verge of greatness

In Tokyo
In Tokyo
By Monty Alexander

Pablo / Fantasy Records: 1979 (reissued in CD format 2004)

This review first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Turbula.

He doesn't have a fiery or charismatic personality, nor is his piano playing marked by superhuman feats of technical prowess. And yet, the very low-key Monty Alexander today finds himself increasingly ranked alongside Oscar Peterson as one of the reigning kings of jazz piano.

While recent recordings have featured forays into Alexander's Jamaican roots (the Kingston native began his music career in the late 1950s in the house band at Studio One, where young lions like Bob Marley were laying down the foundation of what would become reggae), he first earned his rep as a straight-ahead player after moving to New York City in the early '60s.

A newly re-issued set from 1979, out on CD for the first time, captures him in the midst of his upward surge in the jazz public's consciousness, when he was beginning to garner a rep as a top-flight jazz pianist.

If not yet a star in 1979, Alexander was already highly respected by jazz fans and musicians; he was also on the verge of starting a decade-long relationship with Concord Records that would see him issue a dozen albums and establish himself among the very top echelon of pianists.

What this set shows is an artist with a finely developed musical voice; a style that is both immediately individualistic yet wholly immersed in the mainstream. Alexander's playing bounces atop a slightly rippling rhythm, he has his own flourishes – using both hands – that are uniquely his and have been consistent throughout his career, while his improvisations borrow themes freely from other songs for punctuation and spice.

While pianist Art Tatum was an obvious inspiration to and influence on Alexander, there are other influences that also shine through on this recording, some unexpected. Frank Sinatra, for one. Alexander never formally gigged with Sinatra, but he was the house pianist at Jilly's in the early '60s, the 52nd Street joint Sinatra roosted at when in town. Sinatra was even known to sing a few tunes when Alexander was at piano – and that influence shows up in the song selection here, with two songs associated with Sinatra: "Just in Time" and "Nature Boy."

Neither performance is particularly like Sinatra's in style, however – each, in fact, is wholly Alexander's. And Ma Rainey's "See See Rider" is no longer even a blues in Alexander's hands, instead being transformed into a straight-ahead piece with a touch of bop to it.

For those who already have the original LP version of this disc, it should be noted that there are three additional tracks included here: "Impressions," "Nature Boy" and "St. Thomas." The last song becomes the new highlight of this reissue as Alexander takes Sonny Rollins' tribute to the Caribbean and gives it a piquant twist that provides the song an even stronger West Indian flavor.