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Monty Alexander has been flirting the recording of Jamaican music, the music of his homeland, for over the past two decades, when he started recording his Ivory And Steel albums on Concord. Even those initial Ivory And Steel efforts were recorded eight years apart, and the bulk of his recording activityand the bulk of his reputationhave relied on his feel-good jazz swing. Accompanying singers, performing solo or in his own trio or playing as part of a larger band like Dizzy Gillespie’s, Alexander has spent over 40 years following the muse of Louis Armstrong, who inspired him to develop his jazz chops when Alexander heard him in Kingston.
Ever since Alexander signed with Telarc, he has gone back to his roots and has in effect revitalized Jamaican music, now that some of the original practitioners of the music, like Bob Marley, are gone. First Stir It Up: The Music Of Bob Marley, then Monty Meets Sly And Robbie and now Goin’ Yard (meaning “going home”) have solidly identified Alexander as one of the leading proponents of the music. It seems that, despite his versatility, he’s going to stay with Jamaican music for the foreseeable future. And why not? It’s fun, it’s relatively neglected, and it’s a genre that needs a well-known contemporary proponent. So well-known is Alexander’s work that the Jamaican government last year bestowed upon him the Order Of Distinction, Commander Class.
Yet, Alexander’s recent work with Jamaican music still doesn’t seem to be recognized by the general public, and with good reason: They’ve been listening to decades of his straight-ahead jazz recordings. So, when Alexander’s Goin’ Yard group started on “The Serpent” in Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, the audience’s initial reception was quiet. Or so it seemed. It certainly wasn’t quiet when the performance ended. “Day-O” at the end of the CD seems to be an encore tune that the crowd’s wild applause demanded.
In between “The Serpent” and “Day-O,” Alexander presents a percussive program, as is his style, of infectious music honoring some of his island musician friends and creating musical impressions of some of the Caribbean country’s characteristics, such as Alexander’s rumbling introduction to “The Hurricane.”
Taking out the horns that were on Monty Meets Sly And Robbie and the steel pans that were on the Ivory And Steel albums, Alexander maintains the lead throughout the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild performances over the two nights there in October. With guitar lines and some keyboard embellishment, for the most part, Goin’ Yard is piano-led, an unusual phenomenon for Jamaican music. Yet, the same earthy spirit remains, one that makes people get up and dance and clap.
Musically paying tribute to some of Alexander’s friends and influences, Goin’ Yard introduces us to an early associate of his, bassist Carlton “Grub” Messam, who was murdered in Kingston. Alexander doesn’t mourn, but rather elevates “Grub’s” spirit. Then there’s “King Tubby,” a Jamaican recording engineer who added various sound effects to albums produced by the island’s musicians. Alexander doesn’t neglect the fact that boxer Lennox Lewis insists that producers play reggae music when he enters the ring. Alexander lightly swing on “Skankin’ Lennox,” throwing occasional jabs and darting accents for punctuation. Of course, Alexander includes some Bob Marley tunes as well: “Could You Be Loved” and a combination of Marley’s funk and Ernest Gold’s lushness on “Exodus.”
Even though Monty Alexander is goin’ deeper and deeper into the Jamaican music revitalization, his work on the last three albums has varied the instrumentation and approach so that it remains fresh. An optimistic street music, reggae’s power for musical inspiration and its sly way of encouraging social awareness deserves to be perpetuated. And now that Monty Alexander has turned his attention solely, it seems, to the liveliness of Jamaican music, its popularity is continuing.
Track Listing: The Serpent, Grub, King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown, Could You Be Loved, Trust, Sight Up!, Hurricane, Hope, Exodus, Skankin
Personnel: Monty Alexander, piano; Wayne Armond, guitar, vocal; Robert Browne, guitar; Dwight Dawes, keyboards; Glen Browne, bass; Desmond Jones, drums; Robert Thomas, Jr., hand drums