A meaningful pause, a soulful piano break, and the sizzle of a hi-hat are all it takes for Monty Alexander's new version of Bob Marley's "Jamming" to make a startling but entirely organic shift from the heavy riddims of Jamaican reggae to the straight-ahead swinging groove of an American jazz rhythm section.
The lead-off track of Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley, like everything else on Alexander's new disclong tribute to the late reggae pioneer, represents an intriguing experiment in the studio. The pianist straddled alternating rhythm sections; supplied the assembled musicians with inventive arrangements of "Could You Be Loved," "Stir It Up," "No Woman No Cry," "I Shot the Sheriff," as well as lesser-known Marley tunes, brought in Saturday Night Live trombonist Steve Turre for a couple of guest shots, and then watched what happened.
"I treated the two rhythm sections like they were one," the Jamaican native says from his apartment in New York City, where he has made his residence since leaving Miami. "I conceived this seamlessness, with certain cutoff points in the music. There's no tricks, no overdubbing. It just happened right there -- bam! -- on the two-track tape. If anything, I'm the conduit, I'm the passage between the two patterns. I feel equally at home with things that are Jamaican and what came with ska and reggae, and rhythm and blues music, and jazz. I guess I'm a Jamerican."
Stir It Up, so titled because of its mix of elements not often heard juxtaposed with one another, doesn't represent the first time that Alexander has blended his exuberant jazz stylings with homegrown sounds. The pianist met Miami steel pans player Othello Molineaux while he was performing at the old Airliner Motel in 1978, and the two subsequently collaborated on several cross-cultural recordings, including 1980's Ivory and Steel and 1988's Jamboree, the latter of which included a remake of Marley's "No Woman No Cry." He released the similarly themed Caribbean Circle in 1992 and worked with several Jamaican musicians for the same year's Yard Movement, which launched the Island Jazz label.
Alexander was born in Kingston in 1944, a year before Marley's birth in Nine Miles. As a teenager he worked as a session musician at some of the same studios where his countryman would later make his own mark. Although Alexander left for Miami at age seventeen, more than a decade before Marley became an international superstar, he gained a great appreciation and respect for the reggae sensation.
"He was a world figure who altered thinking among people through his music, in a powerful way," Alexander says. "And I compare him on the level of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King because he spoke to Third World people who are not the fortunate ones. People in India and Africa -- Bob affected them all. His songs were all so simple but so profound. Every one of them had a hook and a bass line to it that was so 'Bob Marley.' There's hardly a song of his that you hear that doesn't stick to you somehow. With his spiritual convictions and the talent that he had, he just kept on pouring music out of him all these years.
"His influences are many. He comes from all of what is roots Jamaica. Even from this old music form, mento. The old people would be playing these little songs that had that certain rhythm, which is similar to the way you hear most Jamaicans phrase things. But he also heard James Brown and he heard Elvis Presley. He was just a very open guy to what came from the U.S. There's times when he was playing when he did just a scatting thing, where you think he must have heard Charlie Parker."
Alexander, too, kept his ears open, from his days as a toddler when he picked out tunes on his mother's mostly unused piano. Later, at age nine, he played accordion with calypso bands. Along the way he heard Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley on Miami and New Orleans AM radio stations and developed a jazz jones after checking out Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole via records and at local concerts.
By the age of fourteen, Alexander was forsaking academics in favor of real-life experience as a studio musician, backing the likes of Desmond Dekker with a talented group of Kingston players, several of whom would go on to form the Skatalites.
"I wanted to be where the other musicians were, and hang out," he recounts. "To do so, I would cut class, and make sure nobody knew I was missing. I would hop the bus to go five miles down to the recording studio. I never got in trouble, thankfully, but I was sneaking out of school on a regular basis."
Alexander, with his mother and younger brother, left for Miami before graduating from high school, and spent his first weeks here hanging out at a now-legendary South Beach boxing gym on Fifth Street (the place has since been demolished), watching Muhammad Ali train. Although underage, he found his way into a number of late-night clubs in Miami and Miami Beach, eventually sitting in at the piano and joining the musicians union. "I wasn't legally able to work in the bars, but I was playing in some pretty hot joints, around gangsters and hookers," he says. "Ira Sullivan came to Florida just about that time. He spawned a great love for jazz in me. He was like a pied piper."
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Le Bistro, a club near the 79th Street Causeway, was the site of a particularly fortuitous encounter in 1963, when the pianist was only nineteen years old. Frank Sinatra and a group of his friends (including Jilly Rizzo, owner of a Manhattan nightclub named after him) had stopped by to check out a Sinatra impersonator in the club's main room. Rizzo heard Alexander's trio, and promptly offered him a gig. Six months later, after a stint with Art Mooney's orchestra in Las Vegas, the pianist took up an extended residency at Rizzo's.
"I was completely fulfilled," he says of that early opportunity in New York City, where he began a series of personal and musical friendships with jazz titans such as Milt Jackson, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. "I could play music that had a groove in it. I could play stuff that reflected Jamaica. I never really cared about anything else."
Alexander went on to record acclaimed jazz outings with the likes of bassists Ray Brown and John Clayton, guitarist Herb Ellis, violinist Johnny Frigo, and drummers Jeff Hamilton and Ed Thigpen. But the music of Jamaica, and Marley in particular, kept beckoning. Thus the long-delayed birth of Stir It Up.
"For me, and I'm sure for a lot of people, Marley's songs became part of my musical subconscious," Alexander explains. "The melodies just stayed with me. I did the odd Marley song here and there, but I've long wanted the opportunity to do a collection like this, to play with a group of brothers from Jamaica, and to put my jazz spin on it."