Pianist Monty Alexander has spent most of his career playing modern jazz, but he also has kept the sounds of his native Jamaica in the mix. Recent recordings with his band Harlem-Kingston Express have centered on the music of his home country, and he is perfecting a mix of hard-driving modern chords and harmonies with Jamaican rhythms and syncopation.
"I've been loving this reconnecting with my roots in Jamaica," Alexander says. "It's been great pulling people together who wouldn't appreciate the 'one drop,' as we call it. So I would like to marry the music of Jamaica just like it happened in the beginning; just like ska was the marriage of Jamaican rhythm and rhythm and blues, I would like to meld it with other things — put the jerk sauce on everything."
Alexander was introduced to jazz at a young age, but he also was inspired by all sorts of American popular music, including what he refers to as the "great American songbook," such as the work of Nat King Cole.
"I saw Nat King Cole in Jamaica, and that guy was ripping up the piano keys like nobody's business," Alexander says. "He's the greatest forerunner of modern jazz piano that people forgot about."
As a teenager, Alexander did session work with the musicians who became The Skatalites, as well as other pioneers of Jamaican music. Those sessions also were influenced by the music he heard on the radio, including New Orleans music.
"I would play the music and boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues with a sense of fierce ownership," he says. "It's all that R&B coming from New Orleans, like Huey 'Piano' Smith and Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. ... I wasn't trying to play like Huey 'Piano' Smith and Professor Longhair, I was just playing. [But] if Huey 'Piano' Smith can't make the session that day, call me," he says.
Alexander moved to New York in the early 1960s and caught the eye of one of the most famous club owners in the country: Jilly Rizzo. At Rizzo's club, Alexander found new links between jazz and popular music, including listening to one of the greatest interpreters of all.
"Later, I played for Frank Sinatra," Alexander says. "I played at Jilly's [Saloon] for three years, and I was around that man and his friends. I know his repertoire like the back of my hand. So here I am, Monty Alexander the pianist, and I wasn't just playing those songs. I was living them. It was such a powerful experience being around these guys and those idioms."
Alexander also played with jazz greats including Clark Terry and Milt Jackson, but was thrilled by another New Orleans musician.
"In the midst of that was Louis Armstrong, who was a big influence on me when I saw him in Jamaica. I shook his hand because he was my No. 1 hero. He probably still is my No. 1 hero."
Alexander also sees similarities between Jamaican and New Orleans music and culture.
"We share the joy and the love of rhythm, and when approached with all of that life force in Jamaica or New Orleans or Trinidad, you can't escape it," he says. "You don't want to escape it. It's like life; it's the heartbeat — the rhythm, the beat, the groove, and the way people respond to rhythm. It's the main part — you have your harmony and melody and all the things you have when you play, but if you don't have your rhythm, it's like Duke Ellington says, 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.' Swing is that force of life. If you order some fried chicken, the chicken is good, but the best part of the fried chicken is sucking on the bone. The bone is the rhythm. Sucking on the bone is the best part. Jamaica has its own rhythm. Cuba has its own version. You go up the line and you end up in New Orleans.
"It's like New Orleans is the northernmost part of the Caribbean. There is a big connection of people and attitude and the kind of food we like. It's an attitude toward life: Be loose, be free, be colorful, celebrate life. It's very festive. It's the spirit of the music and the spirit of bringing people together in one love. Like Bob Marley said, 'One Love.'"