“Monty Alexander’s blend of jazz and reggae made for an outrageously good time… When Mr. 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 Mr. Alexander’s original compositions…” – Pia Catton, Wall Street Journal
In a career spanning five decades, pianist Monty Alexander has distinctively bridged the worlds of jazz, popular song, and the music of his native Jamaica. With over 70 albums to his name, Alexander celebrates his 50th year in music with two new world-class releases, each expressing a different facet of his brilliant and sincere spirit of musical expression.
Alexander’s 50th year celebrations officially kicked off on March 29th with the release of Uplift, a live jazz trio project on Jazz Legacy Productions, which rapidly garnered critical recognition and rocketed to #1 on the JazzWeek radio chart.
Next up is Monty Alexander: Harlem-Kingston Express: Live, his debut on the innovative Motéma imprint, set for release on June 14.The eponymous album presents Alexander’s most ‘reggaefied’ touring group yet, which for past few years has defined a bold new chapter in his life-long journey of uniting jazz with reggae and a wide array of other Island musical idioms that he holds dear.
Alexander has been on the express track his whole life and now, in this 50th year of phenomenal musicianship, he shows no sign of slowing down. In 1961, the urban sophistication of jazz and the American songbook, and an invitation to accompany none other than Frank Sinatra, lured the teen prodigy Alexander away from Jamaica and the art form most associated with that nation. The move led to an extraordinary career in jazz, reggae and popular song including collaboration with greats such as Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby and Bobby McFerrin.
Though for a long while, Alexander left behind the down-home, one-love spirit of Island music, through the years – encouraged in part by the emergence of reggae as an international force – he began incorporating Jamaican references into his jazz performances, eventually recording several Bob Marley songbook reggae focused projects in the 1990s. Those efforts involved bringing Jamaican melodic themes into a jazz context, as opposed to reaching for an authentic reggae sound. He has also recorded several specifically reggae focused projects, but this is the first recording to fully incorporate the ‘Full Monty’ spectrum from authentic jazz to authentic reggae and all of the shadings in between.
Though his widest reputation is as a jazz artist, Alexander actually grew up deep inside the Jamaican “yard” movement. His first band, “Monty and The Cyclones,” was focused on native Jamaican music (mento, ska and R&B) and his performances can be heard on seminal reggae recordings from Federal Recording Studio (that later launched the careers of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley, among others). To this day, ‘Commander ‘Zander’ [as his reggae mates have called him since the Jamaican government bestowed the national honor of “Commander in the Order of Distinction” upon him in 2000] – maintains close ties with top figures in the genre, including Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, as well as distinguished producers such as Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid as well as Island records impresario, Chris Blackwell.
With Harlem-Kingston Express: Live, Alexander returns to his roots, extending all the way into reggae dance-hall territory, while also utilizing the full spectrum of jazz composition and performance that has earned him his moniker as a legend of jazz. A photo of his stage set up in the centerfold of the CD booklet reveals the secret to his new sound: On his left sits “Harlem,” a traditional jazz rhythm section featuring Obed Calvaire on drums, Hassan Shakur on acoustic bass, and Yotam Silberstein on guitar; and on his right sits “Kingston,” a roots-rock posse featuring the seasoned reggae artists, Karl Wright on drums, Hoova Simpson on electric bass, Andy Bassford on electric skank guitar and Alexander’s long-time compadre, Robert “Bobby T” Thomas on hand drums, stretching out across center stage with a dance-hall worthy percussion arsenal. In the middle of these two units sits “Commander ‘Zander” happily at the helm, ‘driving’ his piano and swinging the sound seamlessly from jazz quartet to reggae five-some to nine-piece fusion and back again throughout the night according to his musical whim and design.
Alexander’s infectious joy of performing reaches yet a new height in this new configuration. “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,'” explains 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.”
Monty’s Harlem-Kingston Express band configuration is an international crowd-pleaser, as can be heard from the robust and spontaneous applause outbursts peppering the proceedings on this release consisting of tracks drawn from live performances in five countries – U.S., Jamaica, France, Germany, and Holland – over the course of four years (2006 through 2010), and seamlessly assembled into a ‘one world’ traveling concert that reflects not only Alexander’s life experience, but also his life philosophy. The majority of the album was recorded live during the group’s triumphant week at New York City’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz At Lincoln Center) in June 2010. The Wall Street Journal’s Pia Catton hailed that engagement as “an outrageously good time,” and later published the performance as number one on his “Top Five” list of favorite New York concerts of that Summer.
Motéma label founder and president Jana Herzen, (a long-time reggae fan who once played professionally in the genre) also caught Alexander at Dizzy’s and loved the show. It was Todd Barkan – the distinguished producer, presenter and Dizzy’s Artistic Director – who introduced Herzen to Alexander and suggested that Motéma would be a perfect home for Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express: Live disc.
Says Herzen of the signing, “This is a quintessential ‘Motéma’ project: it’s unique, it bridges cultures and generations, and Monty is a musical genius with an ultimate ‘feel-good’, vibe.” Herzen’s label, named after an African word meaning both ‘heart’ & ‘love,’ especially selects artists like Alexander who have a distinctive artistic voice and a commitment to positivity.” The campaign for this project is aimed at helping Monty expand his touring circuit into world music and jam-band territory.”
To that end they are helping the artist launch a new web presence (MontyAlexander-HKE.com ) utilizing cutting edge direct-to-fan technologies to offer exclusive merchandise to the web savvy jam-band community. “Audiences young and old can flip for this music.” enthuses Herzen. “Jazz is the grand-daddy of jam-band music and when a grand-daddy of jazz like Monty gets on stage and swings the mood from crazy up-tempo jazz to Irie reggae, crowds go wild. Of course it’s also huge for us to add yet another piano legend to the roster,” she concludes. (Motéma is also home to NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston, 2011 NAACP nominee Geri Allen and a host of other piano greats.)
Augmenting the Dizzy’s Club tracks on the new release are four favorite gems from Commander ‘Zander’s growing treasure trove of live recordings from along the world track. These international selections further showcase the group’s prowess with distinctive takes on Bob Marley’s “The Heathen” and “No Woman, No Cry”, Alexander’s original “Strawberry Hill” (named for one of his favorite Jamaican haunts), and a very special interpretation of the Milt Jackson jazz classic, “Compassion.” There is also a special recording associated with this release that is dedicated to Dr. Billy Taylor (July 24, 1921 – December 28, 2010) and will be available exclusively online at http://www.montyalexander.com/Billy_Taylor_tribute starting June 14th. Proceeds from download sales from that track, an improvised Alexander medley featuring Dr. Taylor’s “I Wish That I Knew How It Feels To Be Free” will benefit the JazzMobile charity (jazzmobile.org ) that was initially founded by Dr. Taylor.
“With my trios, I’ve had the luxury of playing in some of the more prestigious venues in Europe and around the world. With Harlem-Kingston Express, it’s important for me to play for ‘folks.’ We are looking to bridge the gap, connecting people from various walks of life,” reflects Alexander. “I want to reach the people of Jamaica, the people of America, the people everywhere.”
UPCOMING MONTY ALEXANDER/HARLEM-KINGSTON EXPRESS U.S.PERFORMANCES:
June 15-19 | Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola | New York, NY
June 22 | Yoshi’s San Francisco | San Francisco, CA
June 23 | Anthology | San Diego, CA
June 24 | Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival | Aspen, CO
August 5 | Scullers | Boston, MA
Monty Alexander · Harlem-Kingston Express: Live
Motéma Music · Release Date: June 14, 2011
WEBSITE DEBUT: MontyAlexanders-HKE.com will also debut on June 14. Fans may who join Commander ‘Zander’s VIP club will periodically receive access to new and exclusive live concert audio and special merchandise bundles.
For more information on Monty Alexander, please visit montyalexander.com
For more information on Motéma Music, please visit motema.com