Monty Alexander: Jazz Piano Via Jamaican Pop

Mar 1, 2012

The sound of one of this year's Grammy-nominated reggae albums, Harlem-Kingston Express Live, may seem perplexing at first. But don't let the blend of swing and dub confuse you: That's just the unique sound of pianist Monty Alexander.

Alexander's music has variously been described as bebop, calypso and reggae. But after 50 years in music and more than 70 albums, he's earned the right to call his music simply his own.

Alexander grew up in Jamaica playing the piano and the accordion, and he was versed in the up-and-coming popular music of the island.

"When I left Jamaica for the first time in the early '60s, there was no such name [as reggae]," Alexander says in an interview with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish. "And they had just begun to label that other music ska, Jamaica ska, and I was one of the musicians playing on those early recordings. I was about 15 years old."

After moving to the U.S., Alexander found success on the jazz club scene, playing with several heavyweight artists on his way up. In his quest to fit in, Alexander says his calypso roots took a back seat for the early portion of his career.

"When you come from another place and you have a chance to get in with the folks of whatever avenue you're going down ... you're trying to fit in, and in order to fit in, you have to leave your stuff behind," Alexander says.

After many years and visits back to his native Jamaica, Alexander began to incorporate sounds from his homeland into his music.

"I left the calypso and the island rhythms behind me, but they were always there in the back of my brain," Alexander says. "And years and years go by, and then I started to go back to Jamaica more frequently, and I realized how much I really loved home, and I started to bring back the roots rhythms."

The result was a multifaceted sound that eludes genre categorization and, consequently, a name.

"Monty Alexander music, that's all I can come up with," he says. "I have so many different directions that I can go in and make something out of it that I'm constantly being motivated by that. So my music is alive, it's right now, it's here and now. That's it."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.


CORNISH: This is the sound of one of this year's Grammy-nominated reggae albums.


CORNISH: Confused? That's OK. Jamaican-born jazz pianist Monty Alexander gets that a lot. Over the last 50 years, Alexander has put out more than 70 albums, spanning the music spectrum from bebop and reggae to calypso and jazz standards.

MONTY ALEXANDER: It's like gumbo. You know, we say in Jamaica, pepper pot. You mix it up and it comes out how it comes out, so it never gets old for me. I never play the same thing over and over. It's always new.

CORNISH: Right now, Alexander is in the middle of a special run of performances at the famed Blue Note jazz club in New York. Those shows will highlight tunes like this cut from his most recent live album, "Harlem-Kingston Express," called "High Heeled Sneakers." On that same album, Alexander shows he's not afraid to make the occasional joking nod to the stereotypical tunes people might associate with island music.


CORNISH: Like the "Banana Boat Song." Alexander taught himself to play the piano as a child growing up in Kingston and by the time he was a teenager, he was already an in demand backup player for up-and-comers in Jamaica's music scene, where roots rock and pop reigned and ska was born.

ALEXANDER: I was one of the musicians playing on those early recordings. I was about 15 years old, so there were all these little makeshift gatherings of musicians - singers, rather - that would compose a song and they'd walk into the studio and I would be sitting there with the rest of the players and they'd say, so what you got? And the guy would sing the song and you just sat - so how about this? Yeah, man. Give me that beat. That beat nice. I like that. I like that.

CORNISH: So, on the one hand, you have this background and this training and, on the other hand, you end up coming up in the jazz club scene in the States because you came to the States, starting in Miami and Florida, and then eventually going to Las Vegas, playing with some pretty heavyweight jazz artists.

ALEXANDER: I guess I was a sponge. Still am. You know, you hear music and whatever the gift is called that I have, I would be able to go over to the piano and pretty much emulate what I'd heard.


CORNISH: So when did you start incorporating more obvious island influences? Because I think of a song like - you have "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Upstairs."


ALEXANDER: Well, in the early days, I would be sort of sneaking in a little tune here and there because I don't know if you can relate to this, but when you come from another place and you have a chance to get in with the folks at whatever avenue you're going down, whether it's music or something else, you try to fit in. And in all the fitting, you've got to kind of leave your stuff behind and, indeed, I would leave my natural way of speaking. If I was at home with my mother and my brother, we'd be (unintelligible). Hey, Mom, can I have another rice and peas? (Unintelligible). You know, you're talking like a Jamaican.

But when you go into the street, you start to veer towards a little proper speaking type of...

CORNISH: So the Queen's English, right?

ALEXANDER: You get to the Queens and, before you know it, you end up thinking you could be a radio personality, speaking sort of like that, you know. So I would talk to the musician friends that I made and say, hey, man, how you doing? What's happening? What's happening? And, also, when I did the music, I was able to play the standards and the bebop tunes and leave my calypso songs behind because they never related to that as well.


ALEXANDER: I left the calypsos and mentors and the island rhythms kind of behind me, but they were always there in the back of my brain. And years and years go by, years and years go by and then I started to go back to Jamaica more frequently and I realized how much I really loved home. And I started to bring back the root - we call the roots rhythms. And, indeed, you know, King Tubby represents one of the kinds of tunes that come from the experience when you're in Kingston, Jamaica where it's hot, sweltering and King Tubby is a very good indication of the dub experience.


CORNISH: So, Monty, what is that instrument that we're hearing?

ALEXANDER: This is the melodica. Melodica, which is a cousin to the accordion and the harmonica and it reminds me of when I used to play the accordion as a eight-year-old kid going from place to place, sitting in with the calypso bands that would play at the hotels for the tourists. And I had my accordion, but I got to be tired of it because you had to pump this thing and it was so heavy, you know.

And, years later, I decided to just play it on the melodica because it's just a - when you're in a hotel room in some place in Germany at 2:00 in the morning and you feel like playing a little melody, you just pick up your melodica and play very quietly. Play a song. It's just a blowing instrument and you can tell your story because you're coming from your own personal lungs and you express yourself through that way.


CORNISH: I'm talking to jazz pianist Monty Alexander. That song was called "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Upstairs." How do you go about the process of writing songs? And we have an example I'd like you to talk about and it's a song from your album, "Uplift." The song is called "Home."


ALEXANDER: This particular song is one of many where I just start playing and everybody joins in and there is home. That's it.

CORNISH: Just on stage or in practice?

ALEXANDER: On stage and then there's occasionally a time where I have an idea and I want the group to play it, but it's just a trio or a larger group and I say, hey, check this out, guys. How's this? What do you think? And we start playing it and, if it feels good to me, I'll stop at that point and the next time I play it will be on the bandstand and that's how it grows. It grows while I'm playing, right there live.


ALEXANDER: I don't rehearse much because that sort of puts a noose around it and I prefer just to let it come alive on the stage.


CORNISH: This year, the album "Harlem-Kingston Express Live" was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Reggae Album. Monty Alexander, how do you describe your music?

ALEXANDER: Monty Alexander music. That's all I can come up with because I have so many different directions I can go in, you know, and make something out of it that I'm constantly being motivated by that. So it's alive, my music is alive. It's right now, here and now. That's it.


CORNISH: Well, Monty Alexander, thank you so much for talking with me.

ALEXANDER: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.


CORNISH: Jazz pianist Monty Alexander. His Grammy-nominated album is called "Harlem-Kingston Express Live." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.