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Monty wows ‘em with his spirited jazz

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THE MONTY ALEXANDER QUARTET, Jazz at the City Centre Sheraton; Monday, Jan. 14. One performance only.

In a recent interview with the Deseret News, jazz pianist Monty Alexander repeatedly used words like "joyful," "fun" and "free-spirited" to describe making music. And when he performed Monday evening, he couldn't have described his own playing better.

Although Alexander didn't play the song "C'mon, Get Happy," it could have been the musical theme of the evening. From the first notes of his opening piano solo, "Young at Heart," to the final embellishments of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Alexander sounded like he was having a musical party on stage and everybody was invited.

It was easy to hear his musical influences. Alexander never strayed far from the musical ethic of Nat King Cole, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong and the like. Although he revisited familiar songs and styles, Alexander's approach hardly sounded like a return to the past. His inventive elaborations and variations made it seem as though he was playing the music for the first time — fresh, vibrant and full of humor.

One interesting thing about the concert was that, although the group is billed as the "Monty Alexander Quartet," the configuration on stage never quite seemed to match the description. The first half of the program featured piano, drums and bass. Following intermission, Alexander returned with the bass player and a guitar player. From there they went to a quintet, then to a duet and finally played three or four numbers as a quartet.

Mark Taylor on drums and Brandon Owens on bass were solid and mostly unobtrusive in supporting roles to Alexander's piano (solos excepted, of course). Derek Dicenzo, who later joined in on guitar and then changed to steel drums, was generally good but not outstanding; the guitar lines tended to be a little rhythmically off from the rest of the group. Alexander's wife, Caterina Zapponi Alexander, also joined in for several vocal numbers. While she wasn't terrible, she wasn't all that good, either.

The first half of the concert featured a lot of classic jazz. "Fly Me to the Moon," Ellington's "Love You Madly" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Two Base Hit" were typical of the selections. But Alexander rediscovered them as if he were a child at play.

The second half of the program began in the same vein, with a tribute to Nat King Cole. When Caterina Alexander joined them on stage, she sang first an Italian song, "Estate," and then "All the Way."

From there, Alexander played to his Jamaican roots. He started the next song with a duet between the melodica and steel drums, which eventually turned into a four-person fest of Jamaica and jazz, and later even included Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry."

The evening finished with a rockin' gospel version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," with an Alexander original, "River," for an encore.

E-mail: rcline@desnews.com