"I was there before reggae," says Monty Alexander, speaking of his native Jamaica in a way that's perfectly balanced between humble admission and matter-of-fact declaration.
"I was playing in the studios of Kingston, Jamaica, with the masters of Jamaican music — the Skatalites — before they were the Skatalites. I played for Studio One. I was 14, 15."
Asked about the source of his early, prodigious talent, Alexander can describe the musicality embedded within his DNA only as "a gift."
Miami Jazz Fest 2012With Monty Alexander, Trio de Paz, Don Friedman, Maucha Adnet, Patty Ascher, and others. Saturday and Sunday, November 17 and 18, at Bayfront Park's Klipsch Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-405-JAZZ; miamijazzfest.com. The show begins at 6 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Single-day tickets cost $45 to $90 plus fees, and two-day passes cost $110 and up plus fees via livenation.com. All ages.
"I never understood why, but I loved music from the get-go," he recalls. "Since I was 3, 4 years old."
The Alexander household had a piano, and little Monty was quickly enchanted. "I'd sit down and play little tunes," he fondly recounts.
However, his parents attempted to rein in their son's atypical, personalized techniques with classical training. "They did send me to a piano teacher. I took these lessons trying to get disciplined [enough] to play classical music and I couldn't get there. I was in rebellion. I stuck with playing what I liked to play on the piano. I never learned to read music.
"I just picked it up. Why? Because you develop a passion. My passion was music and what could happen when you played — how it made you feel. You could feel good; you could feel sad. And then you can make other people feel good. It never gets old. When you see the joy it brings to people, you just don't want to do nothin' else."
While describing his family as "not really" musical, the pianist explains he learned about jazz and popular music from radio and movies and quickly became obsessed.
"I had seen Louis Armstrong in the movies. I was so smitten that when he came to Jamaica, it was the greatest thrill of my life. I got to shake his hand. I feel like I'm doing the same thing he did. I like to make people feel good."
But while Alexander generally operates within the milieu of American jazz, he explains that the influence of his home country cannot be denied, citing internationally revered reggae icon Bob Marley.
"Jamaica had such a strong root in its rhythm and spirit; it lent its own approach to jazz and blues. When Bob Marley was singing, he was very influenced by Curtis Mayfield and people like that. I play music that reflects Jamaica, but I also have a great regard for classic American jazz — Duke Ellington, the great masters of American jazz."
Pressed to explain where the two genres intersect, Alexander is quick to cite the music's "integrity." And he says a large part of that abstract notion is technicality and skill.
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"The way you play an instrument, with excellent artistry and fantastic virtuosity. I've worked with Art Tatum and when he played the piano, he was like Michael Jordan times ten. Because he could play, and arrange notes and harmonies with such expertise. That struck me even when I was a teenager, 'This is a challenge.' And that never got old."
Yet despite championing specific traditions such as jazz and reggae, Alexander insists his approach is pan-musical, describing himself as "a sponge" that just soaks up as much transnational influence as possible. All he asks for is a good beat.
"I have a commitment to rhythm," he declares as if it's a party platform. "Rhythm is how the sun comes up in the morning, how your heart beats."