Monty Alexander


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Monty Alexander has some great things to celebrate in 2012. For one, he's entered his fiftieth year as a professional musician—a remarkable career where he's made an indelible mark in the world of jazz and in the music of his native Jamaica. For another, he had two hugely successful records in the past year that ranked number one in their radio chart categories for weeks, Uplift (JLP, 2011) featuring his jazz trio, and Harlem-Kingston Express: Live! (Motema Music, 2011), featuring his exciting hybrid jazz and reggae group pictured above. And on top of all this, for the second of the two records, he was nominated for a Grammy—for the first time in his career.

But maybe the most thrilling thing for him to celebrate is something coming up later in February, that's being billed as a celebration itself: a two-week stint at The Blue Note in New York City, playing in at least eight different settings, touching on virtually every context that Alexander has played in and featuring a list of stellar guest performers.

The first week is dubbed "The Full Monty—50 Years in Music," covering Alexander's jazz side and teams him up with bassist Christian McBride, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, among many others. The second week is "A One-Love Celebration—50 Years of Jamaica," where Alexander is joined by reggae singer/rapper Shaggy; the prolific contemporary Jamaican rhythm section and production team Sly and Robbie; and reggae-fusion singer/songwriter Diana King. Both weeks will also include performances by the Harlem-Kingston Express.

"I'm one of those people in music who enjoy so many different situations," says Alexander. "All through the years, I've made so many wonderful friends. In the minds of some people, they don't seem to be connected with one another. The thing is, I'm the connection point. When somebody reminded me that this was my fiftieth year in music, I figured, you know what? I'm going to have some fun with this. I'm going to share my many worlds with everyone." Remembering the recent multi-week series at The Blue Note honoring pianist Chick Corea's 70th birthday, Alexander talked to people at the club about his own extended series, and everything clicked.

"I'm as Jamaican as they come in terms of my heritage and roots," Alexander explains. "I found that one of the healthiest things I can do for myself is to put these two worlds together, and that's what I'm doing. I'm enjoying the ride of being an American, a Jamaican, and sharing my love of both worlds, both countries, at the same time through music. I figured, we'll start with things that are decidedly coming from the world of jazz, and as we get down into the last week there, I'll start bringing my buddies from home into the old Blue Note there on Third Street and shake it up a little bit. So, that was kind of the recipe, and all of the various people I hoped would be available were available. It wasn't easy with the timing, but I feel so happy about it."

"I imagine my movements are this railroad train," Alexander notes. "Of course it's all imaginary, but that's the basis of the name I came up with for my band," referring to the Harlem-Kingston Express, which will be featured the first night along with other points in the series. "When I play in that ensemble I have two rhythm sections, literally. A bassist and drummer who are classic in the world of jazz—they come with that real get-down-and-swing thing, the legacy of Duke Ellington and all the greats in that tradition. The other rhythm section is made up of guys who play usually with Jamaican artists in what's called reggae, dance hall, ska—all the different things that I knew as a kid growing up that I used to play."

He continues with the "train" motif to describe the February 20 opening of the series at The Blue Note: "It leaves from the Kingston train station on the first night, and I'm bringing in my good friend from the time I was twelve years old, Ernest Ranglin, one of the most amazing musicians, playing the guitar. He's now a young 80-year-old man, and he is, without question, one of the greats ever at what he does. To have Ernie come and join me for the first night is so great."

The next two nights, February 21 and 22, come under the theme of "Triple Treat Revisited," featuring bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Russell Malone, taking on the roles of Ray Brown and Herb Ellis respectively, who, with Alexander, formed a trio that performed and recorded together in the 1980s under the name Triple Treat. The pianist remembers the group fondly. "We had a great, great time. There's a table at The Blue Note with 'Triple Treat' marked on it because we used to play there regularly, 25 years ago. Christian, who is, without a doubt—what's the way to put it—he is Ray Brown still alive, plus! And Russell and I recorded together on Ray's last record before he passed on."

Monty Alexander with the Harlem-Kingston Express

The following two nights, February 23 and 24, spotlight the trio on Alexander's recent Uplift CD, along with special guests, the organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and guitarist Pat Martino. Alexander describes Smith as "one of my favorite musicians of all time. I know him from the '60s, actually. We used to play in all these joints at the same time. We have so much in common. Then I've got another man I've known from so far back, the most unique Pat Martino. Nobody plays like he does."

The theme for Saturday, February 25, is "Ivory and Steel: A Jazz Tribute to Trinidad." "I made a bunch of recordings in the '70s and '80s for Concord records, and this was straight-ahead jazz music but with a strong Trinidadian influence, because the steel drum was featured throughout. So, for 'Ivory and Steel'—which is a play on the ivories of the piano and the metal in the steel drum—I'm going to have some fabulous guests, Fullerton College Big Band, the steel drummer who used to play with me, and Etienne Charles, who is a truly outstanding Trinidadian musician and a graduate of Juilliard. A master trumpeter, he's keeping Trinidad's spirit alive."

The Sunday, February 26, show features singers Freddy Cole and Dee Dee Bridgewater, two longtime friends of Alexander's. This outing is dubbed "A Night at Jilly's," in honor of the New York nightclub that was an important place early in Alexander's career. "I was brought here in 1963 by none other than Jilly Rizzo, the guy who ran the club, and his very best friend, Mr. Frank Sinatra. That's how I got to New York, because of Sinatra and Jilly. And I played there for three years." The last two nights of the jazz shows, on the 27th and 28th, feature Alexander in trio setting, a reunion with bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The three performed together on an especially memorable live recording, The Monty Alexander Trio: Live at the Montreux Festival (MPS, 1976). "These guys have gone on to have fruitful and rich careers as leaders, really, inspiring young guys, keeping this music alive."

As excited as he was to talk about the first week of The Blue Note series, Alexander was ecstatic about the Jamaican music shows in the second week. Why? "Because that's home. H-O-M-E, home. Jamaica is the place where I grew up. I have stayed in touch with it, and the roots of that music are like blood in my veins. I hear it, I feel it, and it makes me overjoyed. I'm joyful about my roots in Jamaica.

"I have the pleasure of inviting some of these guys who are in the world of Jamaican music the true icons. We first start out with the rhythmic duo of Sly and Robbie. And Sly and Robbie are—I don't know how else to put it, but they're the cats. They're the kings of this music. And they've recorded with people from outside of Jamaica, too: Bob Dylan and Serge Gainsbourg and all these amazing people, but the roots of what they do is Jamaica. And I have a special guest with them, on the first of March comes one of our most beloved characters and incredible artist of what he does, Shaggy." In fact, Shaggy is among the other Grammy nominees Alexander is competing with this year—in the reggae category—along with Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley, and the Israel Vibrations.

The Harlem-Kingston Express is featured again on the last two nights at The Blue Note, March 3 and 4. "On the final night," says Alexander, "I will invite another marvelous Jamaican reggae artist known as Diana King. And also—people like to say he's the 'new Bob Marley'—a man named Tarrus Riley."

When asked how he's able to switch between the jazz and Jamaican music worlds— which he does especially seamlessly with the Harlem-Kingston Express—Alexander points to a specific bit of music. "There's a song that Bob Marley wrote called "One Love," you might have heard. Well, that's it. I can't explain it any other way. It's one love. I love both what jazz represents to me; there's that underpinning in that music where I feel the history and the roots of why jazz is what it is—the integrity and the sophistication of that. When I go turn it over, and I start doing what's called the Jamaican experience, I'm also feeling the same thing as far as the value of what that is and why it means so much to me. The whole history of Jamaica—the old folk songs, the African heritage, the heritage from all the people who came there, and the way we talk, what we eat—it all goes into every note I play when I'm kind of rocking with the Jamaican experience. So, both worlds. When that moment comes when I turn it over to the one rhythm section or the other, it's like magic, really—it's a magical thing."

Selected Discography

Monty Alexander, Harlem-Kingston Express Live! (Motéma, 2011)

Monty Alexander, Uplift (Jazz Legacy, 2011)

Monty Alexander, Concrete Jungle: The Music of Bob Marley (Telarc, 2005)

Monty Alexander, Live at the Iridium (Telarc, 2005)

Monty Alexander, Rocksteady (Telarc, 2004)

Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Russell Malone (Telarc, 2002)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Crush Boone

Page 2: Courtesy of Monty Alexander

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