The Pace Report: "Uplift to the Harlem-Kingston Express" The Monty Alexander Interview

Pianist and composer Monty Alexander is having one of the best year’s of his musical career. For 50 years Monty has backed and graced the stage for many of the worlds most important musical icons of our generation. But his unique playing style and his deep Jamaican roots has steeped him in the annals of not only jazz, but his country’s native roots music. To really understand Monty’s legacy, one must experience his latest musical amalgamation called the Harlem-Kingston Express. Over the last week he played to pack houses at the famed Birdland Jazz Club in New York City to rave reviews and dance-happy music fans.

The Harlem-Kingston Express is the pianist’s foray into his musical youth while growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. While in Kingston, he witnessed and experienced the birth of Ska and Reggae music. The music was developed during the late 1950’s as an offshoot of ska, rhythm and blues, and mento. Monty heard American roots music like soul, blues, and gospel while listening to the early pioneers of reggae like Theophilus Beckford, The Wailers(featuring a young Bob Marley and Peter Tosh),and Millie Small. So, his latest Motema Music project is an mixture of all those influences while playing tributes to our jazz masters that hailed from Harlem like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.

The Harlem-Kingston Express features Winard Harper(drums), Lorin Cohen(bass), Yotam(guitar), Bobby Thomas(hand drums), Karl Wright(drums), Joshua Thomas(electric bass), and Earl Appleton(keyboards). Monty put together some of the most diverse group of musicians from all over the world to help represent his vision and spirit throughout the recording. The project came as a brainchild of producer Todd Barkan(Program Director of Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center) when he asked the pianist to record a live recording of music of his native Jamaica while exploring the people that influenced him during his career. So the disc reflects some of the live performances from the weeklong dates at Dizzy’s while recording other songs all over the world.

Born on June 6th, 1944 in Kingston, Jamaica, began studying piano when he was six years old. As a child into his teens, Monty recorded with some reggaes’ up and coming artists. It was in his childhood that he and his family would listen to American radio stations and heard jazz music along with popular R & B. Monty also saw many of the jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Nat “King” Cole while performing on the island. During his late teens his family moved to Miami and he followed them shortly after. He began playing in the local bars and clubs when one night club owner Jilly Rizzo and his best friend Frank Sinatra where they flew in to New York City where he was the club pianist at Jilly’s. It was there that he accompanied Mr. Sinatra and the many other legendary musical icons like Miles Davis to Milt Jackson. It was while he was in New York were he also got his chops as a session musician.

In addition to his latest project, Monty’s first live recording “Uplift” on the Jazz Legacy Productions imprint, is currently number # 3 on the jazz album charts only after being release a couple of weeks ago. Monty took years of live recordings that he had unreleased and let label founder and dear friend John Lee listen to the material. After an unprecedented first listen, Lee decided that this would be Monty’s debut disc for the label. “Uplift” features a dynamic rhythm section that includes Hassan Shakur on bass, and drummers Frits Landesbergen and Herlin Riley. The depth and range of material that was selected for the disc features classics like “Come Fly With Me,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “One Mint Julip.”

Both of these recordings from Monty will give listeners and his fans a multi-faceted scope of his range as a well-rounded musician. “Uplift” is a project that showcases the intimate piano trio that he’s been known for for the last 40 years. It also explores his matur

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