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With a few minor detours along the way, such as a mere stint with Frank Sinatra or recording more traditional jazz piano albums like Steamin', Monty Alexander keeps going back to his Jamaican roots. Now that he's recording again with musicians Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunham, not to mention work with guitarist Ernest Ranglin along the way, Alexander is gravitating again and again to his niche as the finest pianist combining jazz and Jamaican rhythms.
Recent releases, such as 1996's To The Ends Of The Earth, suggest the use of this talent slyly and unobtrusively. However, Concord Picante's re-release of two of Alexander's Jamaican jazz albums from the 1980's all but knocks the listener over with their exuberance and uplifting percussiveness.
And not just drummed percussiveness. But also steel drum percussiveness and pianistic percussiveness.
Joined by Othello Molineaux and "Boogsie" Sharpe on steel drums, Alexander creates the combination of sounds that identifies his uncontestable and signature strength, somewhat as Gary Burton and Chick Corea did with their duo recordings. Who else sounds like Burton/Corea? Or Molineaux/Sharpe/Alexander?
Cut and tuned out of oil drums that Americans left behind around the refineries of Trinidad, the steel drum signifies the West Indies, as does no other instrument. Molineaux's mastery of the steel drums, on track after track as he plays in unison or counterpoint with the quicksilver Alexander, raises the instrument above geographical references and into the vocabulary of the jazz language.
Island Grooves combines two of Alexander's truly outstanding albums into a single set. Ivory And Steel explores some traditional jazz tunes from a Jamaican perspective, the Memphis blues of "That's The Way It Is" tempered by Molineaux's sensitive dynamics and bending of notes. "Jamboree" refers more heavily on the indigenous music Alexander heard as a child, such as folk songs and works by The Might Sparrow, not to mention the ever-present Bob Marley songs he heard later.
The uniform excellence of the performance and the pulse of the music create irresistible music. "Work Song" remains one of the most invigorating adaptations of the tune since the Adderleys first recorded it, Alexander sliding in and out of stride and Latin rhythms, percussionist Thomas bursting with crackling energy in solo and accompaniment. Well, the same values are present on "So What," whose arrangement perhaps is anathema to jazz purists. Nevertheless, Alexander takes a hallowed work and instantly demystifies it with the tempo tripled from Miles Davis' classic recording.
Monty Alexander's energy hasn't flagged one iota, as anyone can tell you who has heard his performances. Even so, Island Grooves captures Alexander at the highest imaginable level and solidifies his reputation as one of jazz' leading pianistsand certainly jazz' leading exponent of the Jamaican influence on jazz' widening worldwide scope.
Track Listing: Disk 1: Happy Lypso, Cavatina, Montevideo, S.K.J., That's The Way It Is, Work Song, Impressions/So What, Stella By Starlight, Street Life
Disk 2: Sly Mongoose, Think Twice, No Woman No Cry, Look Up, Accompong, You Can See, Big Yellow Taxi, Reggae-Later, Crying, Linstead Market
Personnel: Monty Alexander, piano; Othello Molineaux, Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, steel drums; Gerald Wiggins, Marshall Wood, acoustic bass; Bernard Montgomery, electric bass; Frank Gant, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, drums; Robert Thomas, Jr., hand drums, percussion