By Danny R. Johnson – Jazz and Pop Music Critic
“MAYBE IT WAS JUST MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES CONNECTING THE TWO, BUT I WAS LEFT WITH A DEEP IMPRESSION THAT THE WORLD OF MONK AND RASTA WERE ONE SPIRIT. THE WAY RASTA MEN WOULD WALK, TALK AND EXPRESS THEMSELVES WAS A WORLD WITHIN ITSELF AND SO IT WAS WITH MONK.”
New York, NY – Jazz composer, artist, bandleader, pianist, and educator Monty Alexander concluded a successful September 3-8, 2019, six nights show at the famous New York City jazz venue Blue Note, where he captivated the standing room only audiences with selections from his latest album titled “Monty Alexander/Wareika Hill/RastaMonk Vibrations.” The album was released on August 22, 2019, on the MACD Records label and it features among others: saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield, Bongo Billy, electric bassist Courtney Panton, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, drummer Obed Calvaire, Nyabinghi drummer Abashani Wedderburn, and electronic keyboardist Earl Appleton.
Alexander, the 75-year-old Kingston, Jamaica native and masterful jazz legend dedicated the album in honor of the music of the immortal jazz pianist genius, Thelonious Monk, and chose 10 of Monk’s originals for the record that has an apparent RastaMonk Vibrations that beckons Alexander’s Jamaican roots.
Wareika Hill refers to a place in Jamaica, a place where Rastafarians used to gather located behind Alexander’s childhood home outside of Kingston. As a child, he would hear them going up the hill and playing their drums – and such became the early muse for these arrangements of Monk’s songs – songs infused with Alexander’s own creativity, Jamaican grooves and childhood memories of not only Wareika Hill, but being introduced to Monk’s music as a teenager while recording as a sideman at Federal Recording Studios in Kingston. An appreciation of the man and his music ensued, and the germinating seeds for this project were born and developed over the course of many decades.
Ironically, Alexander was born on “D-Day,” which was a momentous event and turning point for the U.S. Military and Allied Forces in Europe on June 6, 1944. And indeed Alexander would launch a one-person Jamaican invasion of America’s jazz piano community. His weapons were an ample technique and an ability to use it without letting it dominate his playing. As he so eloquently and brilliantly demonstrated at the Blue Note gig, Alexander displayed his spirited style, which was heavily influenced by his homeland.
In the opening set, Alexander was accompanied by J.J. Shakur on acoustic bass and Jason Brown on drums to serenade the audience with several selections which at various points hitting torrential rhythms and a hailstorm of notes! After the first set with the trio, Alexander introduced the Rastafarian Band to the stage: Andy Bassford, guitar, Leon Duncan, electric bass, Karl Wright, Jamaica drums, Junior Wedderburn, percussion, Wayne Escoffery, tenor sax, and Andrae Murchison, trombone.
By this time the joint was kicking with one opening tune after another with a hair-raising exhibition of polyrhythms and harmonic juxtapositions. One tune was ironical “Monk’s Dream,” which Alexander cleverly alternated back and forth with the trio and the Rastafarian Band, is ordinarily played minimally and at moderate tempo; here, Alexander explodes all over the keys with sharp repeated notes and a wild assortment of chords before digging into the theme. And by the way, there is nothing like a down-home deep electric bass guitar hitting those Jamaican chords which bass player Andy Bassford masterfully delivered.
Alexander was off and running again with another Monk classic “Bemsha Swing,” which featured the Downbeat Critics Poll Winner and GRAMMY-winning tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, who has a thorough and sophisticated grounding in the art of negotiating chord changes at speed. He combined the gruffiness of Sonny Rollins’ middle and bottom register with Coltrane’s upper registry cry and had the musical inquisitiveness and passion to match fire-with fire-even when soloing over Alexander at his most possessed.
It is so refreshing to see and hear Alexander in recent years, and particularly with the release of the “Monty Alexander/Wareika Hill/RastaMonk Vibrations” album loosen up a bit and allowed himself to explore his heritage more freely. Two past albums come to mind that served as a milestone in his expansion: “Stir It Up,” a collection of Bob Marley tunes, which he played with empathy and insight, and “Monty Meets Sly and Robbie,” the fascinating meeting between the pianist and the legendary Jamaican rhythm team of bassist Robbie Shakespeare and drummer Sly Dunbar Alexander sinks into these steamy drum machines groove as if they were a seductive hot bath, streaming his improvisation into meticulous, spare lines designed to enhance rather than dominate the track. His only moments of stretching out are over repetitive vamps created to give him space—and even in those episodes, such as the stone reggae arrangement of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” Alexander keeps those chapters short and ornamental rather than central to his improvisation.
Very much like Monk, Alexander is a “sui-generis,” an artist playing in a style of which he is the only practitioner, with very few followers. And the “Monty Alexander/Wareika Hill/RastaMonk Vibrations” album gives us enough of his ebullient personality, projecting an unrestrained joy in his playing which has inspired countless of young pianists who have come to admire his craft and the enormous contributions he has made to the preservation and cultivation of the jazz art form.