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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

Jul 24, 2011

Monty Alexander has given us an embarrassment of riches. In the past ten weeks, he has released two wonderful new CDs, each featuring a very different side of his musical personality.

Alexander recorded Uplift for John Lee's Jazz Legacy label, leading a piano trio composed of himself, bassist Hassan Shakur, and drummers Herlin Riley (7 tracks) and Frits Landesbergen (3 tracks). It's an elegant romp through jazz classics ("Fungi Mama", "Django", "Body and Soul") and three originals (the best of which is "Hope"). From the introduction of the melody on the opening "Come Fly With Me", we know that it's going to be a smooth flight. In fact, it’s been near the top of the USA Jazz Radio Charts for the past month.

But Alexander is comfortable exploring his Caribbean heritage as well. He's recorded two tribute albums to Bob Marley in the past (Concrete Jungle and Stir It Up) and saluted ska with legendary guitarist Ernest Rangelin. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he brings that sense of "riddim" to Harlem-Kingston Express Live! recorded last summer at Dizzy's Coca-Cola in Manhattan, Jamaica, and Europe for the Motema imprint. As polished and - well, uplifting - as Uplift is, Express has Monty leading an eight piece party band, with most spots on the bandstand doubled on electric and acoustic instruments. The band turns "Freddie Freeloader" into an Island-soaked workout, and leads the audience through a raucous sing-a-long on "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)". Lest anyone think he's lost his chops, he returns for a contemplative duet with drummer Frits Landesbergen on Marley's "No Woman No Cry".

Born in Jamaica in 1944, Alexander is constantly ranked among the top ten piano players of all time (check out Hal Leonard’s 2005 book The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time). He's recorded for over four decades, and brings his unique Island sensibilities to all of his work. In fact, in August 2000, the Jamaican government awarded Monty Alexander the title of Commander in the Order of Distinction for outstanding services to Jamaica as a worldwide music ambassador.

Click here to listen to my conversation with Monty Alexander, featuring music from these two new releases and a few older goodies, including:

"Could You Be Loved?" from Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley. Taking his jazz sound and integrating it with Jamaican rhythms is no small feat, and when you're tackling the Bob Marley songbook, you're really out on a limb. Luckily, this is a real winner, as Monty takes his American core group - bassist Shakur, guitarist Derrick Di Cenzo and drummer Troy Davis - and mixes in Jamaican band Gumption and guest stars from Steve Turre to drummer Rolando Alphonso.

“Sweet Georgia Brown” from Uplift. Only one song is included on both of these albums, and it’s the jazz standard and pop tune written in 1925 by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard (music) and Kenneth Casey (lyrics). The Harlem Globetrotters may have made it a cultural touchstone as their warm-up music, but everyone from Ray Charles to Anita O’Day to Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt has made it a jazz classic. This first version is the piano trio of Alexander, Shakur, and Riley, with the latter contributing a driving solo.

“Sweet Georgia Brown” from Harlem-Kingston Express Live! And here it is with a Jamaican slant on the tune, featuring Robert Thomas on percussion. Greg Calvaire and Karl Wright on drums, Yotam Silberstein and Andy Bassford on guitars, and Hodva Simpson on bass.

 “Hope” from Uplift. An inspired original, Alexander begins with a classical feel, and then plays a reggae-tinged beat with his left hand while soloing with gusto on his right, drums keeping the beat right along. The song then returns to the slower, more reflective blues sound before drifting off.