Throughout a career spanning six decades, the New York-based artist Monty Alexander has garnered acclaim for bridging American jazz, popular song, and the music of his native Jamaica. The New York Times recently described him as “an effervescent pianist and one of Jamaica’s proudest musical exports.” The Wall Street Journal has by turns called him “maybe the first—and certainly the most successful—musician to combine Jamaican music with North American jazz” and said that, “Alexander’s blend of jazz and reggae makes for an outrageously good time.” On April 8, just before Alexander celebrates his 70th birthday, Motéma Music will release Harlem-Kingston Express Vol. 2: The River Rolls On, the most seamless integration to date of Alexander’s dual musical heritage.
Although it accomplished a (seemingly) simple musical hybridization, the eponymous first release from the Harlem-Kingston Express was not a concept album—at least not deliberately so. The recording came about serendipitously: It is a 2011 concert at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York City, for which Alexander merged his jazz trio with a full Jamaican rhythm section, recorded for broadcast on Sirius XM. Jana Herzen, founder of Motéma Music, was so moved by the set that she arranged to release it on her label. The album turned out to be one of the most acclaimed entries in Alexander’s vast body of work, which includes over 70 recordings with Alexander as leader. Harlem-Kingston Express elicited an equally warm embrace from reggae and jazz fans and critics, and was nominated for a 2012 GRAMMY for Best Reggae Album.
For the new album, Alexander convened the band for its first studio recordings—primarily at New York City’s Avatar and Dubway. In addition to band members from the project’s first volume—Alexander (piano), Hassan Shakur (acoustic bass), Karl Wright and Obed Calvaire (drums), Andy Bassford and Yotam Silberstein (guitars)—the collection features the keyboardist Earl Appleton, the electric bassist Joshua Thomas and the percussionist Courtney Panton. They perform a mix of Alexander originals (which are themselves steeped in both Caribbean music and American jazz and R&B) and Alexander interpretations of classics, from the soul hits “People Make the World Go Round” and “What’s Going On” (here with the alias “Wa’a Gwan”) to Jimmy Cliff’s reggae landmark “The Harder They Come.” Alexander’s wife, the French-Italian chanteuse Caterina Zapponi, joins him and the band on the album’s title track.
The album also includes Alexander’s “Love Notes,” featuring his friends George Benson, Ramsey Lewis and Joe Sample; a live version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” recorded live in 2005 with vocalist Wendel Ferraro; and previously unreleased live recordings of the Jamaican folk song “Linstead Market” and Alexander’s “Regulator (Reggae-Later),” both from the original 2011 Harlem-Kingston Express concert at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.
Harlem-Kingston Express Vol. 2: The River Rolls On at once encapsulates the current moment in Alexander’s singular career and finds him returning to its earlier stages: both his teenage years, when he played on sessions helmed by pioneering reggae producers Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Duke Reid and Chris Blackwell, and his first decades in the U.S., when he had the occasion to record and perform with icons such as Frank Sinatra, Milt Jackson and Ray Brown, among countless others.
Born on D-Day (June 6, 1944) and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, he took his first piano lessons at age six, although he is largely self-taught. As a teenager, he witnessed concerts by Louis Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole at Kingston’s Carib Theater. These artists had a profound effect on Alexander’s aspirations. He formed Monty and the Cyclones in the late 1950s and also recorded on sessions with the musicians who would catapult Jamaican music to international recognition as The Skatalites (Bob Marley’s first backing band).
Alexander and his family came to the United States at the end of 1961. Less than two years later, while playing in Las Vegas with Art Mooney’s orchestra, he caught the eye of New York City club owner Jilly Rizzo and his friend, Frank Sinatra. Rizzo hired the young pianist to work in his club, Jilly’s, where he accompanied Sinatra and others. There he met Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who hired him and eventually introduced him to former Charlie Parker collaborator and legendary bassist Ray Brown. Alexander recorded and performed with the two jazz giants on many occasions. Jazz’s greatest luminaries welcomed Alexander to their “musical fraternity” in the mid-1960s. Among these earliest enthusiasts for his playing were none other than Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Miles Davis.
Monty Alexander’s collaborations span multiple genres, styles, and generations. His projects have been as varied as assisting Natalie Cole in her tribute album to her father, Nat “King” Cole in 1991 (the resulting album, Unforgettable, won seven Grammy awards), performing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” under the direction of Bobby McFerrin at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, and recording the piano track for the film score of Clint Eastwood’s Bird, a movie about the life of jazz titan Charlie Parker.
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.
In Hal Leonard’s 2005 book The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time, Alexander was listed among the top five Jazz pianists of all time.
Alexander maintains a rigorous touring schedule worldwide, playing in jazz clubs, concert halls and playing at international Jazz Festivals in the USA and across continents; from Europe to Asia; in Montreux, Switzerland; Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa; and Japan, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, etc.
To date Monty Alexander has recorded over 70 albums as a leader. His collaboration with Telarc label yielded trio sessions (Impressions in Blue) and live concert recordings (Goin’ Yard). In the late summer of 2005, Alexander traveled to Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, and teamed up with Jamaican top session players to record Concrete Jungle, a set of twelve compositions penned by Bob Marley and reinterpreted via Alexander’s jazz piano-oriented arrangements. The resulting union of musical perspectives digs deep into the Marley legend and brings together the two worlds that Alexander most treasures, building the musical bridges that are the very essence of his craft.
As a testament to his versatility, The Good Life, on Chesky Records is a collection of songs written and popularized by one of his all-time favorite artists and good friends, Tony Bennett. His second release on Chesky, Calypso Blues, is tribute to another one of his heroes, Nat “King” Cole.
In 2008, with the invitation of Wynton Marsalis, Alexander conceived and directed the acclaimed program Lords of the West Indies at Jazz at Lincoln Center, broadcast nationally on BETJ. Alexander returned to Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2009 with a new program, Harlem Kingston Express in which he merged classic Jazz with rhythms and vibrations of his native Jamaica.
In the winter of 2008 American singer and icon, Tony Bennett personally invited Monty to record as the featured pianist on his Christmas album, A Swinging Christmas, with the Count Basie Orchestra. Monty can be spotted on the album cover, holding a turkey next to Tony Bennett.
Two collections were released in 2011 that capture the excitement of Monty Alexander’s live performances around the world: Uplift, a trio album on JLP Records, and Harlem-Kingston Express on Motema Music.
Harlem Kinston Express: Live! was singled out by both the recording industry and fans and received a Grammy award nomination in 2012.
Between Uplift and Harlem-Kingston Express: Live! Monty Alexander has officially dominated the US radio charts with three number 1 spots in 2011, as not only Uplift remained at number 1 for several weeks but Harlem-Kingston Express: Live! rose to number 1 on Jazz charts and on World Music charts concurrently.
In the summer of 2012 Monty Alexander was awarded the prestigious German Jazz Trophy, “A Life for Jazz” and in November 2012 he received the Caribbean American Heritage Luminary Award from the Institute of Caribbean Studies in Washington, D.C.