Monty Alexander unites jazz and reggae in ‘Harlem-Kingston Express’ Montéma CD debut
“Monty Alexander’s blend of jazz and reggae made for an outrageously good time… When Alexander — the Jamaican-born pianist with a cheerful, chatty style — surrounded himself with a Caribbean quartet to the right and a jazz trio to the left, the result was fresh, lilting interpretations of Bob Marley’s greatest hits, as well as Alexander’s original compositions…” — Pia Catton, Wall Street Journal
Put Monty Alexander in any musical genre, and he will shine. The Kingston, Jamaica pianist and composer was first plucked from relative obscurity in Vegas while playing backup in Art Mooney’s orchestra in the early ‘60s — by Frank Sinatra and a famous New York City club owner by the name of Jilly Rizzo.
It was all up from there.
The superstars of their time soon found out Alexander’s unique versatility. He was comfortable in Nat King Cole’s world, working on Natalie’s multi-Grammy-winning “Unforgettable” tribute album. He fit right in at Switzerland’s Verbier Festival, lifting Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to glory with musical director Bobby McFerrin. And the piano lines audiences hear in the score of Clint Eastwood’s homage to Charlie Parker, Bird, is all Monty Alexander.
Versatility is one thing. Fusion of disparate, distinctive parts is another. Especially with two musical genres as diverse and seemingly mismatched as jazz and reggae. Growing up in Jamaica, Alexander admired jazz and 1950s pop standards (Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole), while forming bands that propagated his island lifestyle through reggae, ska, mento and R&B.
With 70-plus albums to his name, Alexander went back to his roots on “Concrete Jungle,” a 2005 project formed in his homeland of Kingston, Jamaica and with top session players there to put on some Bob Marley with jazz arrangements. Always homesick for Jamaican music but a firm fan of jazz, the celebrated musician — who was given the title of “Commander in the Order of Distinction” by the Jamaican government in August of 2000 — fulfilled a personal and professional dream with his latest, live recording.
Harlem-Kingston Express: Live is Alexander’s first release with Motéma Music. It officially came out June 14th last summer in the midst of the man’s 50th anniversary as a thriving, legendary musician. In conjunction with this release and one in March, called “Uplift,” another live album with a trio (JLP Records), an exclusive, all-access website — MontyAlexanders-HKE.com — debuted, enabling fans to be a part of Commander ‘Zander’s VIP Club for lots of merchandise and informational perks, including access to new live performances on audio.
Both of Alexander’s newest albums hit number 1 on several U.S. radio charts, including the Jazz and World Music charts.
What Alexander has done on Harlem-Kingston Express: Live is nothing less than uniting two distinctive but hard to meld genres into a cohesive, powerful whole. The balancing act between jazz and reggae was made easier with his two tremendous bands, each representing a facet of the artist’s musical make-up.
He brought with him two sets of bands, his “Harlem” band, featuring a traditional jazz rhythm section and his “Kingston” band, featuring a reggae rhythm section. Representing Harlem: drummer Obed Calvaire, acoustic basisst Hassan Shakur, and guitarist Yotam Silberstein. Kingston’s band: drummer Karl Wright, electric bassist Hoova Simpson, electric skank guitarist Andy Bassford, and hand drummer, a long-time colleague, Robert “Bobby T” Thomas. At the center of it all is Alexander on the piano, swinging between jazz and reggae, and then meeting both in between, whether it’s straight ahead in a jazz quartet, a reggae quintet, or a full-on, nine-piece big band fusion.
“It was a while before I said [to myself], ‘If I want to do this music and [be free to] pick from the whole palette — everything from my own piece to Duke Ellington, to Bob Marley — then I need to bring two rhythm sections together,’” explained Alexander. “That way, it all can be available to me, whatever I feel, the whole time. Because I feel American and I feel Jamaican, and the rhythms that come from the street and the country in America are just as meaningful to me as the vibrations that come from Jamaica. It’s like, [my] left hand and [my] right hand.”
The album’s recording primarily took place in the June 2010 performance at New York City’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz At Lincoln Center). Other live spots came from tours throughout the rest of the U.S., Jamaica, France, Germany, and Holland in a four-year (2006–2010) labor of love.
Included amongst the live takes are reinterpretations of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and “The Heathen,” Milt Jackson’s “Compassion,” as well as Alexander’s original composition, “Strawberry Hill,” inspired by a special placed he loved to go in Jamaica.
Artist quotes from a DL Media press release.