Monty Alexander Talks About His Kingston-to-Harlem Self-Discovery
In a tent behind the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest’s main stage on Aug. 10, Monty Alexander was preparing to play his fifth gig in five days with his Harlem-Kingston Express ensemble. The unit—comprising acoustic bassist Hassan Shakur, electric bassists Hoova Simpson and Joshua Thomas, and drummers Obed Calvaire and Karl Wright—was touring in support of Alexander’s most recent album, The River Rolls On (Motéma), the latest in an ongoing series in which the piano master, 70, finds the points of intersection that connect his roots in the popular styles of his native Jamaica and the hard-core swinging jazz for which he has developed an international fan base since immigrating to the United States a half-century ago.
The pianist had flown from Aspen only 90 minutes before and would leave for the airport directly after the concert for a week of engagements in Europe, but if he felt any fatigue, it wasn’t apparent in his performance, which included a lengthy romp through a reggae tune over a penetratingly chuggin’ groove from the two electric basses, and, on the “James Bond Theme,” an elemental, ever-developing melodic solo over Calvaire’s crisp swing beats.
Despite his hectic schedule, Alexander was fully focused during a brief conversation with DownBeat. “I always say, ‘We’re getting paid to travel,’” he said during the interview. “After I came to New York City, the first time I got a job on the road in America was in Detroit, ’66. Pack the bag and go play in some club somewhere.”
DownBeat: Before you launched the Harlem-Kingston Express, you had done a number of other projects that explicitly addressed your Jamaican heritage. How has this one evolved?
Monty Alexander: I guess you get seasoned; it’s being marinated, the spices, the whole thing. I’m more effective with what I do when it just comes naturally. It flows. In my early days playing music in Jamaica, it was like water pouring out of me. Then I came to America, and was thrilled to be in the company of the great jazz people, like Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, and I tried to fit in. Later, what’s happened is that I’ve naturally fallen back into a comfortable rhythm with myself.
I love Jamaica. I love America. I love them both together more than each one separately. This band—which is a double rhythm section of musicians who relate to the Jamaican idiom and who are about the classic version of jazz music as I love it—allows me to play the trio the way I want to play it. It’s never this or that. This concept is coming to fruition in my late … in these years of my life, but it was always my desire to introduce Jamaican things to American jazz guys, and I wanted to share my experiences in the jazz world with Jamaica. At first, I went, “How do I do this?” Then I realized it was just to sit at the piano and play with musicians who are expert in each idiom. I inhabit the rhythmic aspect of both things. I can’t explain why. I do it naturally and joyfully. Even on a night where you’re tired, not thrilled to play, it’s a cathartic, healing experience.
Does this new album have a particular conceptual thread?
Let me bring some sounds that are natural for me to play. They don’t come from the bebop world or the Great American Standard world. They are things that a Jamaican would like to play, in the way we would have played it more than 50 years ago, when I played in the studios in Jamaica. I want to share the enjoyment I have when I play any of these songs from the record, whether it is a simple two-chord song or something a little more involved. It’s a thrill when I play, and see a bona fide jazz person enjoying what we’re doing, and then see a bona fide “Yard” Jamaican relating to the jazz idiom. It’s like Bob Marley said, a “one love” experience. I didn’t plan it. It just happened. It was a God-given gift.
It’s my impression that this project has been a process of self-discovery, a coming full-circle.
What have you learned about yourself?
Accept the fact that I am a foreign-born character. I am a comfortable immigrant, comfortable with who I am. I am confident and proud and privileged to say this is me, with all of my unusualness and the fact that I come from a multicultural and multi-ethnic thing. I am a wondrous mongrel. The slogan of Jamaica is like America’s “E Pluribus Unum,” “out of many, one people.” That’s what this is about.
I spent my early years as a musician with guys who were 10, 20, 30 years older than me, my heroes, like Roy Eldridge and Charlie Shavers. These were not music school guys. They were street-corner, street-school guys. Like me. I didn’t go to music school. The English lady who taught me music rapped my knuckles. I said, “Hell, no, I’m not going to practice Bach fugue; I’m going to play boogie-woogie.” I was a rebel. But at a certain point here in America, I started to feel a little estranged, because there was a new mentality coming in from the music school people who’d write about it and analyze it and try to explain it. I can’t explain why I felt estranged. It’s a mystery. So when I was in Jamaica, I found myself hanging out with friends from my teens, in the studio with Sly and Robbie. I found myself enjoying that, and hooking up with the new people on the scene.
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