When the prime minister of Jamaica bestowed jazz pianist Monty Alexander with the title of Commander in the Order of Distinction, some of his friends teasingly referred to him as Commander Zander. But there's truth in the honorific: Alexander has been a great ambassador for Jamaican music and American jazz. Those two musical legacies meet in his latest project, the Harlem-Kingston Express.
"When I was 10, I fell in love with music and musicians in Jamaica," Alexander says. "When my folks weren't watching, I would find a bar downtown where the guys were drinking white rum. I was right in there, just loving the music that they would play — jazz among themselves. Between the local folk music called calypso, which is really mento, as well as the jazz I heard, it was just a full experience for me."
Alexander brought the Harlem-Kingston Express to WBGO to preview music from a new live recording. The group combines a jazz rhythm section with a Jamaican bass-and-drum groove, while Alexander sits at the piano bench, moving in between both worlds.
"I'm dancing, myself," Alexander says. "When I start playing music with a rhythm of some kind, or as we say in Jamaica 'riddim,' I feel it all up in my bones. I can't tell you a difference between the two worlds of jazz and Jamaican music, because one of the things I love to do is put them together.
"I play with this sense of rhythm, and I try to bring all the other players with me," he says. "It's gotta be ramping along in terms of making you want to move your being — your heart, mind and body."
Hear the connections in Alexander's original, "Strawberry Hill," or the dub classic "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown." The Harlem-Kingston Express also interprets two Bob Marley songs, "Running Away" and "No Woman No Cry."
When it comes to playing Marley's music, Alexander sees the connection between jazz and Jamaican music in a clear way.
"I think those of us who want to think about the good things — the right things, the better things, the noble things, the human things — that man, Marley, expressed a lot of that in his delightful melodies and wicked rhythms," Alexander says. "Bob Marley's songs are like psalms, because they are directly connected to the Scripture. On 'No Woman No Cry,' he's literally encouraging people not to despair, because help is on the way. Easier said than done, but hope is all some people have."