LIVE: Monty Alexander Valentine’s String Ensemble @ The Egg, 2/14/16


Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

It was Valentine’s Day, and Jamaican-born jazz pianist Monty Alexander got the audience in a romantic mood playing standards with his trio – featuring guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist JJ Wiggins Shakur.

It wasn’t until a little past the mid-point of the 90-minute set that special guest vocalist Caterina Zapponi came out to sing. The Italian singer’s father was the celebrated screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi and her mother, a French chanteuse, instilled a love of music, both French and Italian. At The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, she sang songs in both languages, as well as English. And, of course, a mournful rendition of “My Funny Valentine” was included in her set.

After Zapponi’s set Alexander led a round-robin of unaccompanied performances by his two sidemen. Shakur wove a marvelous improvisation based on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” weaving in accents from other compositions into his solo bass improv.

Next up, Vignola was a bit hesitant, explaining to the audience that it would be the first time in his career that he’d ever play unaccompanied solo guitar in front of an audience. After bantering a bit with the audience, he launched into an improvisation that started with a Gypsy jazz groove, then shifted gears into pop, some straight-ahead Joe Pass stuff, and a little blues (with the audience clapping along) before wrapping it up with something classical that Julian Bream would be proud of. And in the end, Vignola was as excited as the audience that he pulled it off.

Alexander played a solo piece on piano and afterward it was back to the trio with the exception of a duo piece with Shakur. He told the audience how seeing Louis Armstrong in Jamaica caused him to take up the trumpet as a child, but six months later he saw Nat King Cole and that was it – the piano was his instrument. And in that spirit Alexander dipped into Cole’s songbag, singing along.

The trio finished the set and took their well-deserved bows amid the sea of applause. They called up Zapponi and more applause swept the stage. The audience of 250+ people wanted more, and the band huddled together to decide the next number like a quarterback with his offensive line, ultimately deciding to go with one more turn at the microphone by Zapponi.

Chatting with Alexander after the concert, he revealed that this aggregation had never played together before. Yes, Alexander plays with Shakur often. He has accompanied Zapponi several times and sat in with Vignola. But the four of them had never been together on the same stage at the same time until that evening. Amazing…

More of Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photographs of the concert at Albany Jazz






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