From the Skatalites To Shaggy to the Blue Note: How Jamaican Jazz Legend Monty Alexander Keeps Keeping On
From the Skatalites To Shaggy to the Blue Note: How Jamaican Jazz Legend Monty Alexander Keeps Keeping On

How does a venerated jazz pianist whose career spans six decades remain relevant among a younger audience? If you are Monty Alexander you take it back to your Jamaican roots and invite friends like multi-platinum selling dancehall superstar Shaggy, and internationally renowned drum and bass duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare to join you during your two-week stint at the New York City landmark jazz venue The Blue Note.

Alexander's current engagement (Feb. 20-March 4 )is being presented in dual segments that honor the two worlds he has inhabited for the past 50 years: jazz and indigenous Jamaican music: "The Full Monty," highlighting several of Alexander's key jazz collaborations, followed by "A One Love Celebration, 50 Years of Jamaica," commencing on February 29, which emphasizes his various endeavors with Jamaican colleagues and celebrates the 50th anniversary of the island's independence.

Additional guest acts for the "One Love" presentation include contemporary reggae singer/songwriter Tarrus Riley, whose "Parables" (Canon/VP Records) reached no. 10 on the Reggae Albums chart in 2008; Riley's musical arranger, esteemed saxophonist Dean Fraser and singer Diana King who recently performed with Celine Dion their 1999 hit "Treat Her Like A Lady" at the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival.

Each guest act will adapt their distinctive reggae inclinations to the show's jazz-oriented platform. "Coming from another country we have looked at how we can fit into American music but then it reaches a point where we stop trying to fit in and just bring our music to them," said Alexander, 67, in a recent interview in midtown Manhattan. "I have been connecting my roots to the world of Duke Ellington and there is nothing more wonderful then when I get to put it all together."

Alexander seamlessly merged his jazz trio with a reggae rhythm section on the critically lauded album "Harlem-Kingston Express Live" recorded primarily at New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center. Released in June 2011 on the New York City based jazz/world independent Motéma Music "Harlem-Kingston Express Live" was nominated this year for a Best Reggae Album Grammy.

"The campaign for this project is aimed at helping Monty expand his touring circuit into world music and jam-band territory; jazz is the grand-daddy of jam-band music and when a grand-daddy of jazz like Monty gets on stage and swings the mood from crazy up-tempo jazz to irie reggae, crowds go wild," said Motéma President Jana Herzen.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica on June 6, 1944, Alexander was a teenager when he began playing piano on recording sessions at (Kingston's) Federal Studios with members of the seminal ska band The Skatalites in the early 1960s, the formative years of Jamaica's music industry. He moved to the US in 1962, the same year Jamaica won her independence from England, and went on to record and perform with some of the biggest names in jazz and popular music including Frank Sinatra, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and his compatriot, legendary guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who like Alexander, has brought nimble jazz mastery to numerous reggae recordings. Ranglin, along with Alexander and Sly and Robbie performed for three nights at the Blue Note in Tokyo in November 2011 and was the special guest on The Full Monty's opening night working alongside the musicians comprising The Harlem Kingston Express.

Alexander's deserved recognition in jazz as well as Jamaican music spheres, which includes being awarded the Jamaican government's Order of Distinction for outstanding services as a worldwide music ambassador, warrants a largely unprecedented two-week stint at the Blue Note, says the venue's Publicist and Marketing Director Jonathan Kantor. "Our booking scheme is set up to have an act start on Monday, play for the next six nights then start up with another artist the next week; Monty's idea was to play from Monday to Sunday for two consecutive weeks, two shows per night with (mostly) different musicians every night. Because he runs the gamut from swing to reggae and since he is celebrating 50 years, it is fitting he get two weeks to do it," remarked Kantor.

The Blue Note can accommodate approximately 200 per show and tickets to most of Alexander's performances are sold out, Kantor added. A recording of Monty's Blue Note performances with three different sets of accompanists, including Sly and Robbie, is intended for a 2013 release on the club's in-house label Half Note Records.

Alexander hopes "A One Love Celebration, 50 Years of Jamaica" will acquaint the Blue Note's jazz enthusiasts with the diversified talents of Jamaican instrumentalists like Dunbar, Shakespeare and Fraser while underscoring jazz's pivotal influence upon the development of Jamaica's signature ska and reggae rhythms. "When Bob Marley put his music together he used certain things that had to do with a jazzy flavor; before the Skatalites called themselves that, they were jazz men," reflects Alexander. "So this is just another attempt at doing something that brings those two worlds together."