HOW MONTY ALEXANDER BRIDGED HIS JAMAICAN ROOTS WITH JAZZ
May 23, 2017 | by Ross Eustis
Ever since moving to the United States as a teenager in 1961, Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander has forged a path all his own bridging his Caribbean roots with his love for jazz and swing. From his early days recording with pioneering Jamaican record producer Ken Khouri (in what he dubs “the beginning of Ska”), to recording a dozen records in the hard-swinging piano trio format for the German MPS label after being endorsed by Oscar Peterson, Alexander has made indelible contributions to both jazz and Jamaican music throughout his 55+ year career.
Yet, as Alexander’s musical explorations progressed, he found it difficult to assemble a singular ensemble that could unite his Jamaican musical roots with jazz. In Alexander’s own words:
“I would have a trio of jazz masters, and when I’d want to play something that reflected Jamaica, whether calypso or Bob Marley, I couldn’t get that thing because that’s not what they do. Conversely, the Jamaican guys didn’t relate to the jazz experience. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to share my two loves — which is one love, to coin Bob’s phrase.”
Enter the Harlem-Kingston Express. In the mid 2000’s, Alexander began shaping a group that could organically straddle both musical worlds, which he'd document on his GRAMMY-nominated 2011 album, Harlem-Kingston Express: LIVE. The band consisted of a double trio—Hassan Shakur on bass and either Herlin Riley or Obed Calvaire (now with the SFJAZZ Collective) on drums, paired with Jamaican artists Glen Browne or Courtney Panton on electric bass, and Karl Wright on drums. As evidenced in the band's recordings and reviews, Harlem-Kingston Express is best experienced live. A masterful bandleader, Alexander spontaneously orchestrates on the bandstand, switching between straight-ahead and “two-worlds-meet.”
A big fan of boxing, Alexander explains the group in these terms:
“It’s like you go into the ring, and you throw the left, you throw the right—but whatever you throw, throw it right. There’s almost always some kind of jet taking off when I transfer the music to one rhythm or the other. Whether it’s 4/4 straight-ahead acoustic or a rhythm from Jamaica, it’s cathartic. It’s a bring-people-together thing, and the musicians enjoy each other. You can see the camaraderie, no matter who I’ve got. It’s constantly, ‘let’s do it this way, let’s do it that way.’ It never gets old.”