In the late ’50s, in Kingston, Jamaica, the steady diet of music feeding the young pianist Monty Alexander’s growing creative appetite came primarily from the radio. There was just one station for music in Kingston back then, transmitting a diverse juxtaposition of sounds: classical music alongside American pop, jazz and R&B.
Alexander was particularly fascinated by the music of Louis Armstrong and the rhythm and blues coming out of New Orleans courtesy of artists like Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. But the lack of separation between genres on the radio offered exposure to a much wider range of ideas.
Things changed after “music business people” as he puts it “separated the idioms.”
“When I heard music as a kid, it was just one wonderful world of song and rhythm,” he recalls. “So, maybe that’s how I navigate between the places.”
The places in question are Kingston and Harlem, the namesakes of the project he’ll feature at Jazz Fest, and the origin of the music the band blends on 2011s Harlem-Kingston Express and 2014’s Harlem-Kingston Express, Vol. 2: The River Rolls On.
Speaking from his home in New York, Alexander explains that New Orleans represents not only a physical “center point” between his two musical home bases, but also a figurative one. The Crescent City gave birth to the jazz in which Alexander has been steeped professionally for five decades, while early New Orleans R&B contributed to the development of ska and reggae in Jamaica.
“I was already very young when I began listening to that kind of jazz—the swinging kind of jazz, the kind that makes you want to tap your foot to,” he says. “My heroes of jazz music were about that. It was about a release and revelation and celebration.”
A devotee of Armstrong and Nat King Cole who also recorded with Jamaican music luminaries like Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Alexander’s elegant approach to melody and deep rhythmic mastery attracted players ranging from Frank Sinatra to Dizzy Gillespie to Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson. But it’s Alexander’s work as a leader that shines the brightest.
On his second Harlem Kingston Express recording, the pianist pairs lush yet open jazz arrangements of material by Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye with originals that combine billowing harmonics with the energetic drive of swing-based motifs with plenty of groove.
“I like to say that kind of music makes the lower part of your body wanna move,” says Alexander, whose “express” travels frequently into Latin rhythms as well.
Considering how he navigates the elements at work, seamlessly marrying different concepts without sacrificing their unique cultural flavor, he pauses.
“Harlem is a destination. But my roots are total Jamaican,” he concludes. “I play my life.”