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Monty Alexander

Bob Kenselaar By

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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."

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