Monty Alexander performs alongside T.K Blue. Maya McFadden Photo courtesy of the New Haven Independent.
Monty Alexander radiated the eternal cool of the Caribbean even before he touched the keys.
"It’s nice to have a job!” mused the platinum-haired pianist from the stage. His bellowing Jamaican lilt bounced over the audience. When he began to play, whole musical universes came together under one roof.
Alexander graced the stage at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre last Saturday night, bringing stories, songs, and fellow musicians from his decades-long career with him to perform at the downtown venue. The concert is part of a sweeping new vision from Executive Director Anthony McDonald that looks and sounds more like New Haven than the Shubert has in decades.
A sense of interweaving histories flowed through the set. In his opening number, the gospel standard “Abide with Me,” Alexander breathed a Bill Withers tone into the air, the chords lingering over the beat like university fight song. It was rousing and worn and comforting.
The piece features on Alexander’s album Wareika Hill Rastamonk Vibrations, his tribute to the mid-20th century pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk. The original composer, however, was British organist and hymnal curator William Henry Monk, who wrote it in the late 1880s.
The shared surname is no coincidence—the Monks of England eventually became the Monks of North Carolina. Among the people enslaved on the Archibald Monk Plantation in Rocky Mount were Thelonious Monk’s ancestors. So even when Alexander isn’t playing Monk on Wareika Hill, he’s still playing Monk.
Alexander dedicated the next song to Jamaican activist and icon Marcus Garvey. He prefaced the Marvin Gaye cover with his updated title, “Wha Gwan?” Involuntarily, this reporter’s ears perked up for a sip of malted Motown. Instead, they met a sonic sorrel. The despair of the original felt seaglass-rubbed by time. The intervening years colored the montage, but Alexander softened the images with the bounce of his right hand. Drops of frisson in amber waves of brain.
Where Gaye poured his mourning for the state of the union into his lyrics, Alexander’s instrumental invited listeners to meet him halfway. The negative space from Gaye’s absent vocals created a collaborative effort—a few people in the audience couldn’t resist humming along. It was infectious. Smiling eyes and nods met each other in silent admiration.
"I paired Marvin with somebody I think Marcus would appreciate, Mr. Miles Davis!” Alexander beamed. His annotations tied the songs together in a loose narrative of the African diaspora through the lens of his prodigiously creative life. From his scrappy start as a Jamaican teen pianist making his name in Miami to his meeting with Frank Sinatra that launched his star, it seemed Alexander’s ascension was preordained.
He spoke at length about the cultural intersection of New York City that helped shape the music of Thelonious Monk. Alexander explained how neighbors from Jamaica, Trinidad and other West Indian provinces brought their influence to jams with Monk. Musicians like Herbie Nichols, Carmen McRae and Fats Navarro, Leonard Gaskin and Denzil Best collaborated with Monk to create songs like Bemsha Swing, a tribute to Barbados or “Little Bimshire.”
Drawing from New York City’s indigenous music, Alexander spun a version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” tying the track to a hip-hop boom-bap better suited for a headspin than a pepperseed. The code switch was effortless, swelling and roiling to a Ray Charles-inflected ride cymbal for “Get Up Stand Up.” The stage glowed in shades of green and gold.
A fiercely independent thinker in the Socratic tradition, Monk prized the knowledge of self as the foundation of expression. He wore a ring engraved “Know” which inverted read “Monk” to further illustrate the point. To that end, Alexander has made no attempt to replicate Monk’s sound. Instead, the original compositions informed something new, dynamic, accessible and organic.
Alexander did the Herculean labor of taking the swirling, cosmic divinations of Monk and reshaping them in the rhythmic framing of dancehall music. Where Monk was often suspenseful with his timing, Alexander poured into the corners of the rhythm to capture the esoteric essence of the compositions, while grounding them in agreement with the hips of the listener. Where Monk may have composed some pieces for ears, Alexander retrofitted them for dance.
Assisting in this task were New York-based drummer Jason Brown and upright bassist Luke Selleck, who hails from Manitoba. The trio shared the stage with special guest vocalist Miss Mattie Lou, who strode the stage with a full basket of fruit perched securely atop her head.
“They asked me if I can sing in C. I said no, but I can sing in a river,” she joked.
Mattie Lou explained the origins of patois from the introduction of English to Jamaica in 1655. It took mere seconds for her to bridge 300 of linguistic history. She explained the wandering H in omelette, which Alexander demonstrated with a Caribbean dad joke.
"I asked for a homelette. What's a homelette? A little town in Germany,” he said.
Their banter was light and playful, steeped in affection for the island they called home. Mattie Lou led the audience in the call and response children’s song “Chi Chi Bud Oh,” assigning us the refrain “Some a dem a holla, some a bawl.” She led a song “about a man who tried to date me. He gave me money and I bought stuff with it. That was a mistake. This song is called Jeremiah, No Tarry.”
Later, Alexander introduced guests Wayne Escoffery on sax, Karl Wright on a second drum kit and Joshua Thomas on electric bass. Standing in a mirrored pose, the sextet launched into “Brilliant Corners.” The stage lighting split the group, each trio taking separate sections like a Sondheim showdown between the Sharks and Jets.
Alexander shared his youthful ebullience when Jamaica was the setting for the first Bond film Dr. No and lit into a scotch bonnet-infused take on the 007 theme. The audience bubbled over. He played “Well You Needn’t” with all the caffeinated bounce of the original, while Jason Brown found space in the drumline to recontextualize its speed. Once, Alexander took his hands off the keys entirely and just watched Brown play while he crafted a solo over his concurrent drum part, stunning the audience. The muscles of my scalp ached from sustained smiling.
In the end, Alexander brought Mattie Lou back out for the encore. He played a red, black and green festooned melodica while she sang King Tubby and a final crowd-powered anthem Lalala. Alexander reintroduced the band members, flashed a brilliant grin and dashed off to greet fans.
The consummate showman, tireless bandleader and charismatic bard could certainly rest on his laurels—but he showed no sign of slowing.
Learn more about programming at the Shubert Theatre here.