New York Times (Dec. 2017)
With his Harlem-Kingston Express, he brings together musicians versed in both reggae and straight-ahead jazz, creating a brew that’s danceable and lilting and often ramps up from hypnotic to electrifying.
Jazz pianist Monty Alexander makes a point of telling his audiences (like those on his opening night at Birdland, on Tuesday January 2) that he was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1944, and that he immigrated to the United States in 1961. For most of his career, he’s divided his career into at least two hemispheres, starting with the bebop and jazz standards that he played with such veterans as Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, at such legendary venues as the New York Playboy Club and Jilly’s (the latter at the insistence of Frank Sinatra). At the same time, he’s never neglected his carribean roots, and has created many fruitful mashups of jazz with calypso, reggae, mento, and other island musics. His two albums of the music of Bob Marley, Stir It Up (1999) and Concrete Jungle (2006) are particular triumphs, as was his 2011 Harlem – Kingston Express Live! which qualified him as virtually the only jazz pianist to be nominated for a Grammy for best Reggae album.
What makes his current band his greatest is that rather than dividing up these two halves of his musical brain, now he constantly brings them together, performing on stage with essentially two ensembles simultaneously: a jazz trio, co-starring bassist Hassan Shakur and trap drummer Obed Calvaire, who are gradually joined by a Jamaican-style rhythm section. (The latter consists of electric guitarist Andy Bassford, fender bassist and vocalist Joshua Thomas, and Karl Wright, playing a ginormous drum setup that seems like a virtual wikipedia of percussion.)
With six players on stage, and with more than 60 years of playing professionally, Mr. Alexander is obviously a very well-prepared musician and bandleader, yet what works best about his current shows reminds me of the title of Peter O’Toole’s 1992 memoir, Loitering with Intent. Mr. Alexander starts with just himself and
Mr. Shakur’s bass, playing whatever happens to be on his mind, there’s still snow on the ground, so he starts with a wintery theme, “Sleigh Ride.” This being the second day of the new year, he proceeds to a song about rebirth and renewal, “Young at Heart.” From a Sinatra standard, he moves on to a fuller exposition of “I Can’t See For Lookin’,” written by the young Nat King Cole in 1943. As the purview expands, he pauses and moves on to a collage of “I Got Rhythm” with “St. Thomas,” the calypso theme that most of us are familiar with courtesy of Sonny Rollins. Moving around the globe to the South Pacific, he introduces a boppish treatment of “Happy Talk” with volcano-like effects from the island of “Bali Hai,” even while Mr. Shakur acknowledges their current setting by interpolating the famous bass riff from Joe Zawinal’s “Birdland.”
And so it goes, for about 80 blissful minutes. An academically trained musicologist could transcribe everything Mr. Alexander plays on standard notation paper, but it might make more sense to track his musical whereabouts using a musical form of Google maps. Halfway through, there’s a brilliant collage of various Jamaican style movie themes from the first James Bond epic, Dr. No (1962), and an especially lyrical reading of Johnny Mandel’s “A Time For Love” (He was probably mindful that his lovely wife was standing at the bar - even she couldn’t get a seat - and that Valentine’s Day. cards are already for sale at Hallmark shops everywhere.) He gradually builds to several Marley classics, “No Woman No Cry” and “Exodus,” the latter detouring through the Ernest Gold film score that inspired Marley himself. New York may be a concrete jungle, where the living is hard - especially when it’s only 10 degrees outside - but the regular appearances of Monty Alexander at Birdland are one of the things that make being here worthwhile.