Volume III, Issue I Spring 2004

It's all jazz, mon
Monty Alexander brings Jamaican touch to American art form

Monty AlexanderMonty Alexander plays as broad a swath of American music as anyone. The pianist is firmly enmeshed in the jazz tradition, but in his four-decade recording career, he's laid down covers of everything from pre-jazz standards like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" to the deep blues of "C.C. Rider" and "Got My Mojo Working" all the way to the heavy funk of "Theme from Shaft" and thick soul of "Sexual Healing."

Alexander has even displayed a touch with western themes – having recorded "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)" and "Don't Fence Me In."

While such a broad repertoire is unusual enough, what makes it even more noteworthy in Alexander's case is that he was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. So how did a kid growing up on a Caribbean island in the '50s get turned on to all these styles from the United States?

"I enjoyed the music we heard coming over the Jamaican radio station, RJR," Alexander wrote in an e-mail interview last week. "This station played all kinds of music from America."

As for his repertoire, Alexander wrote, "I play music that I personally enjoy, which can come from a variety of sources and lifestyles."

If fluent in nearly all American music styles, Alexander has never turned his back on his Caribbean roots, either. Throughout his career, there have been Caribbean-themed albums; in the last decade alone, there has been one release devoted to the music of Bob Marley, a project with reggae masters Sly and Robbie – and now, just released last week on Telarc Records, "Rocksteady," an album exploring the ska sounds of Jamaica that predated and led to the development of reggae.

What's interesting is that before he left Jamaica for the United States, where he fell under the sway of pianist Oscar Peterson's playing, Alexander began his professional career as a session pianist in the recording studios of Kingston – helping to create the then-new ska sounds that would later so shape the music of his homeland.

Also sitting in on many of those legendary Studio One sessions was guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who later recorded with Alexander throughout the 1970s. On "Rocksteady," Alexander and Ranglin are again reunited – something Alexander clearly relishes.

"Once again it was sheer joy to be with Ernest Ranglin, with whom I have been sharing music off and on for more than 45 years," Alexander wrote. "The album we did, 'Rocksteady,' we thought would have been an enjoyable album for us all – an idea which Telarc embraced wholeheartedly."

And while the play list on "Rocksteady" is drawn from those heady days at Studio One, Alexander and Ranglin give those old songs a very new jazz twist – just as Alexander has done with American blues and country-western.

"I am not a 'jazz' purist; I love all kinds of music and all kinds of people," Alexander explained of his approach to playing.

"In my opinion, 'jazz' is not just a style, but a certain way a musician plays what he hears."

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