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Monty Alexander: From Reggae to Jazz and Back to It

Miguel Lozano

  To listen to Jamaican piano player Monty Alexander might be a comforting revelation for jazz lovers who consider Jamaican reggae a minor musical trend, or viceversa.
    Born in Kingston 67 years ago, now living in the USA, this Caribbean musician has gone a long way taking him from his roots in his native Jamaica, where reggae is king, up to the highest recognition levels in stages in New York.
    His most recent album, The Harlem-Kingston Express Live, picks up the connection between American jazz and Jamaican reggae from the starting title, with pieces such as "No Woman No Cry" by legendary Bob Marley, with a pure jazz construction, without losing the reggae roots.
    Other Marley´s songs he included were "The Heathen" and "Running Away", so as traditional "Day-O" and "Freddie Freeloader" by another legend, Miles Davis.
US traditional songs like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and a song by Alexander "Strawberry Hill", and also "High heel Sneakers" by Tommy Tucker, are other representative pieces in the album.
    The spirit of these recordings have been expressed by Alexander himself, with state of mind taking him from Harlem, New York, down to Trenchtown, in Kingston.
Some of the pieces were recorded live at the Dizzy´s Club Coca-Cola by Monty Alexander´s Harlem-Kingston Express, an ensemble with two rhythm sections: one Jamaican and the other, classic jazz. The rest are recorded made in concerts in Europe and Jamaica.
    The album got the first place in the world jazz list called Jazz World Chart for 14 weeks and came to be one of the five 2012 Grammy nominated albums for Best Reggae Music Album, together with two works presented by the sons of Bob Marley, Stephen and Ziggy, with "Revelation Part 1" and "Wild and Free", respectively.
The other competitors were Shaggy with "Summer in Kingston" and Israel Vibrations with "Reggae Knights".
    The Grammy golden statuette was finally for Stephen Marley, but this does not make Monty Alexander´s magic piano playing fade or vanish.
Alexander´s piano can be heard in recordings for other outstanding artists, such as Tony Bennett or Quincy Jones, and even in the tribute album "Unforgettable" by Natalie Cole.
    In his 50 years of artistic life, Monty Alexander has produced 70 albums and shared the scene with Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Ray Brown, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Ernest Ranglin, Bobby McFerrin, Barbara Hendricks, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.
    Born in Kingston on June 6, 1944, he formed his own band called "Monty and the Cyclones" when he was younger. He played with musicians who later were part of Jamaican mythical group The Skatalites.
    Already living in the US, he was part of the orchestra of Art Mooney, and later, he was signed to play in a club in New York, in which he accompanied Frank Sinatra at the piano, because Sinatra went to the place many times, and sang there.
    In 2005, he recorded an album called "Concrete Jungle", a performance of 12 musical pieces composed by Bob Marley himself, at the Tuff Gong Studios, a property of the Marley family.
    Harlem-Kingston Express was one of the two albums recorded in 2011. The other, was the one called "Uplift".
    All the pieces coincide with the dicotomy between jazz and reggae: "No one is more valuable than the other", has said this outstanding Jamaican musician in an interview to specialized magazine Downbeat.
    The result has been a magic work integrating two popular music trends with strong roots and universal dimensions.

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