In case you haven’t heard, Monty Alexander has a new live album out. More elegant and urbane but no less fun than his ecstatic, paradigm-shaping reggae-jazz albums like 1995’s Yard Movement and 2004’s Rocksteady, this new one, Harlem-Kingston Express Live, is a vivid reminder why artists as diverse as Tony Bennett and Ernest Ranglin have sought him out as a collaborator. Shifting effortlessly between bustling swing and a deep roots reggae groove, the iconic Jamaican jazz pianist is backed by two different bands – a roots reggae unit, as well as a jazz trio with rhythm section and guitar. Recorded both at Dizzy’s Club at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as on tour over the previous few years, the production is remarkably fat for a live performance, particularly perfect for the reggae numbers. For the straight-up jazz tunes, the group here includes Hassan Shakur on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums and Yotam Silberstein on guitar, while the electric reggae unit typically features Andy Bassford on guitar, Hoova Simpson on bass guitar, Karl Wright on drums and Robert Thomas on percussion. Sometimes, though, Alexander flips the script, allowing each group to explore their counterparts’ territory, with surprising and rewarding results.
Strawberry Hill, one of Alexander’s most popular hybrid compositions, is done tersely and not a little suspensefully, big block chords laying the foundation for some tiptoeing lyrical excursions. By contrast, the version of High Heel Sneakers fades up jauntily, Alexander literally leading a charge, leaving the boogie bass to the rhythm section as he gets the piano humming with overtones before diving back into the blues. King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown leaps from the classic drum-n-bass vamp to a sprint, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing after all…and then they’re right back where they started.
Eleuthera, another Alexander signature song, gets a laid-back but lively reggae bounce. They pick up the pace with a lickety-split, surprisingly lighthearted romp through Sweet Georgia Brown, Silberstein taking over where Alexander leaves off, while Freddie Freeloader gets a tongue-in-cheek disco groove. But the gravitas of the solo piano intro to Milt Jackson’s Compassion doesn’t dissipate even as the slinky reggae riddim comes in (that’s Bernard Montgomery on melodica, in case you’re wondering how Alexander can play two keyboards at once).
There are three Bob Marley tunes here, and they’re the real showstoppers. The Heathen reminds why Alexander is equally admired in the jazz and jamband worlds, as it constantly changes shape from brightly lyrical reggae, to a bustling bop interlude…with a little melodica, and stark bowed bas when least expected. Running Away winds in casually but matter-of-factly, Alexander keeping it pointed and biting just like the original. They swing out of it with a silvery Silberstein solo, Alexander firing off a big chromatically-charged climb to take it out on a high note. No Woman No Cry is quite a bit faster than the original, quickly becoming a launching pad for some typically wry Alexander allusions that the band picks up on – his wit’s in rare form, and the fun is contagious. Another album, another victory for Commander Zander. It’s out now on Motéma.
The Jolly Boys’ new album Great Expectations – their first in possibly decades – might be the year’s funniest release. The octogenarian Jamaican band – who used to serenade Errol Flynn back in the 50s – plays mento, the folk music that gave birth to calypso, ska and eventually reggae. Where the Easy Star All-Stars have fun doing reggae versions of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Jolly Boys have just released an album of rock songs – most of them standards, with a few obscurities – done with vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar and stompbox. It’s hilarious and it’s totally punk rock even if it’s 100% acoustic – and the music is pretty good, too. The lead singer can’t hit the high notes, but that’s part of the fun – and it’s not as if he isn’t trying his best. Is this exploitation? No, it’s satire.
One of the funniest things about it is that you get to hear the lyrics clearly. The most brutal version here is Blue Monday, a synth-disco hit for New Order in 1986. Stark, rustic and the most punk track here, what’s obvious from the first few nonsensical lines is what a truly moronic song this is. It’s the one point on the album where you can sense that the band can’t wait to get this over with. Strangely, Golden Brown, a slick 1985 British pop hit by the Stranglers, isn’t funny – it’s as boring as the original. The rest is a long series of WTF moments. “Just a perfect day, drinking Bailey’s in the park,” rasps frontman/guitarist Albert Minott as the upbeat, bouncy version of the Lou Reed song gets underway – is that the actual lyric? Riders on the Storm is hilarious: “From the top to the very last drop,” Minott announces, obviously aware of who sang it the first time around. And their version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want is every bit as interminable as the original, if not as annoying, Jagger’s fifth-rate Dylan impersonation naked and ugly in the stripped-down arrangement.
But not everything here is as cruel. There are two Iggy songs. The Passenger is just plain great, and the band responds joyously; Nightclubbing is reinvented as a banjo tune, where somebody takes a mean pickslide after Minott announces that “We learn dances like the Nuclear Bomb.” The Nerves’ (and later Blondie’s) Hanging on the Telephone is a period reference that fits the band perfectly; Steely Dan’s Do It Again is the least recognizable of all the songs; by contrast, I Fought the Law and Ring of Fire could both have been mento originals, considering how many influences it shares with oldtime American C&W. The most bizarrely amusing track here is the Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, which has to be heard to be appreciated (and has a clever video streaming at the band’s site). The album closes with three deviously aphoristic mento standards: the cautionary tale Dog War, the slyly metaphorical Night Food, and a hypnotic, harmony-driven version of Emmanuel Road. It’s safe to predict that many of these songs will end up on late-night mixes at bars and parties throughout the next few years and, who know, maybe for a long time. The Jolly Boys have been around for more than half a century and show no sign of going away.
Two words: YEAH MON! This new cd does double duty as valuable cultural artifact and strangely delightful party album. With acoustic guitar, a primitive “rhumba box” for a bass and an impressively energetic octogenarian banjo player, Gilzene & the Blue Light Mento Band play what Jamaicans were playing and dancing to before calypso, decades before reggae. Mento is sort of like Jamaican bluegrass, with similar chord changes but a different rhythm. It’s not reggae, but as this album goes on you can hear several elements that survived the transformation: for example, the way the percussion rolls when the song reaches a turnaround, and the guitar accent on the downbeat. Sung in old-fashioned Jamaican patwa, the lyrics reflect an earlier era, sometimes sly, sometimes silly, laden with puns and innuendo. Authenticity these days may be a dubious concept, but this album has an strikingly roughhewn, rustic vibe. The ramshackle quality of the performances, the dodgy harmonies and the slightly out-of-tune instruments only enhance the vintage feel. Although mento is an indelible part of Jamaican culture – island jazz still abounds with mento themes and references – it’s been a long time since it was in style. So this album is overdue, and particularly welcome for preserving these songs pretty much the way they were played seventy and eighty years ago.
The group kicks it off with a stripped-down, acoustic version of Crying, an international hit for Katie Kissoon in the 70s. The second track has a rousing, careening bluegrass feel with bracing, sometimes abrupt banjo accents. Gungu Walk, which follows, is a playful narrative told from the point of view of a peeping tom. The work song Hill & Gully is a long (some might say interminable) call-and-response vamp with a vintage Cuban feel – being an island nation, Jamaica has long been a melting pot for a stupefyingly large variety of styles. Ole Im Joe (Hold Him, Joe) is similarly rousing, in this case the metaphorically loaded tale of a donkey who can’t get enough to drink, alcoholic or otherwise. And Wata Yu Garden needs no explanation. The last of the fifteen tracks is a somewhat breakneck, out-of-tune version of the Toots & the Maytals classic Sweet & Dandy with vocals by Toots himself.
The backstory here is classically Jamaican. Gilzene has two other incarnations, one as Culture George, a reggae artist whose orthodox Rasta roots album was produced by the Twinkle Brothers’ Norman Grant back in the 70s, and the other as a gospel singer. Backup singer/percussionist Donnett Leslie moonlights as the keyboardist in his reggae band.
The party vibe was strong at this one-off concert put together by Jamaican historian Herbie Miller for Harlem Stage at Aaron Davis Hall. It was an oldschool massive, and it was as if everybody pretty much knew everybody else, friends of the seven musicians shouting out to their countrymen and getting a shout back from the stage. A strong case could be made for the contention that for the past several decades, no other country has had more talented musicians per square mile than little Jamaica, and this casual yet dazzling display of three generations of island jazz talent only bolstered that argument. Serving as bandleader was iconic, ageless guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who in his six-decade career has played with just about every legendary Jamaican musician in calypso, jazz, ska and reggae. Former Sun Ra sideman Cedric “Im” Brooks and Douglas Ewart on sax joined in representing the older generation, with pianist Orville Hammond and longtime Gil Scott-Heron percussionist Larry McDonald filling in the middle and a young-gun rhythm section of Wayne Batchelor on bass and frequent Jimmy Cliff and Monty Alexander sideman Desmond Jones on drums. Running through a set heavily stacked with old mento standards, the group were loose and conversational but buckled down when they had to, with often exhilarating results.
Jazz from Jamaica tends to be especially melodically oriented, and tonight it was Hammond holding it down with the rhythm section pushing along on the basic, soul- or blues-based changes. Often Brooks would ham it up, opening the set with an amusing if ill-advised turn on vocals, serving as a foil to Ranglin’s counterintuitive sophistication. Now 76, Ranglin has never played better: given a chance to take center stage, he chose his spots and then wailed through some strikingly intense, even piercing solos, generally eschewing the fluttery Les Paul-inflected chordal style that’s been his trademark for so long. Hammond had fewer chances to cut loose, but made the best of them, bringing a masterfully eerie noir lounge touch to the few minor-key songs in the set. Brooks and Ewart were remarkably similar, each showing off a soulful, slowly crescendoing, thoughtful style that gave their cohorts ample opportunity to contribute or, in the case of Ranglin, echo and bend a phrase into a completely unexpected shape.
At their most boisterous, Jones would get out from behind his kit and pummel a big bass drum, McDonald coming over from his congas, joined by both Ewart and Brooks, creating a free-for-all that would eventually drown out the rest of the band. There were also a couple of perhaps expected, perhaps surprise special guests, namely a couple of older gentlemen who took the stage in front of the band and got the crowd roaring with their impressively agile dance moves while the security guards looked on bemusedly from the edge of the stage. Before the encore, Miller explained to the crowd that they had been ripping up the yard since way back in the day. And then the less frenetic of the two grabbed the mic and indulged in a long exhortation to the Rastas in the crowd, ending with a fervent suggestion to read Isaiah, Chapter 43 (a passage which doesn’t make much sense other than to say that God will mess with you if you don’t behave). And nobody stopped him or shut off the mic: no problem, mon. For about an hour and a half, it was like being in Montego Bay – or Ogetnom, as one of the night’s most beautifully haunting numbers was playfully titled.
“This is the power of reggae music,” announced lead singer Keith Porter. What he meant wasn’t clear. Maybe it was that the troupe of restless daycamp kids who had taken over the middle of the park were behaving themselves surprisingly well, or that the sprinkling of West Indian toddlers with their grandmothers remained practically silent for the duration of the concert. Maybe that was the power of reggae music. Or the power of residual THC in Jamaican breast milk. Ital is vital, yeah mon.
It’s easy to make jokes about reggae. Too easy, for that matter. Even if the Itals’ keyboardist was using a small handful of tinny settings straight from the synthesizer factory floor, circa 1983, or that whenever Porter addressed the audience, he couldn’t maintain a train of thought for more than about half a sentence, it was impossible not to sway and bounce to this band. Their day in the Jamaican sun came and went a long time ago – it was 1986, said Porter, that their hit Rasta Philosophy was nominated for a Grammy (it didn’t win). “Before there was BET, or MTV,” Porter emphasized, and he was right in a sense. The corporate entertainment-industrial complex hadn’t completely penetrated Jamaica at that point, just at the time the rapidfire deliveries of dancehall were pushing conscious roots reggae acts – the Itals among them – into the background. But they were enjoying considerably popularity on the college circuit here, one of the practically innumerable bunch of good Jamaican vocal trios with roots in the 60s, and lucky enough to find an audience among young people here when the youth of Jamaica were more interested in pursuing their own homegrown version of gangsta rap.
Typically an opening act for more famous reggae artists, with the demise or disappearance of most of their contemporaries the Itals seem to have finally hit center stage. They played as if they’d come to claim their territory, mixing major and minor keys effortlessly. The rhythm section was skintight throughout their long, practically two-hour set; their guitarist took only one solo, but it was a good one, flashing some flamenco chops as opposed to the metal that all too frequently rears its drooling head from time to time in what’s left of roots reggae. Porter’s cajoling tenor can be a dead ringer for legendary loverman Gregory Isaacs, and his two harmony singers (notably a young woman named Kayla) nailed everything, pitch-perfect, all the way through. This is hard music to sing: you can’t just hang out all verse long and then come in on the chorus.
They bookended a bunch of romantic songs – including a nice new one called Mind Over Matter – with more conscious material including Rastafari Chariot from their 1981 debut album Brutal Out Deh, widely considered to be their high point. Midway through the show, a middleaged man walked up to Porter and asked him sing his first hit, the 1967 Westmorelites tune Hitey Titey, and he obliged with a few bars while the drummer tried to play along. But it was clear the band didn’t know the song. The afternoon’s silliest moment (there are invariably plenty of these at a reggae show) saw the band seguing into a Tony Orlando and Dawn song from 1975 for a few bars. In front of the stage, a small, stout, elderly woman in a Bahamas t-shirt, swaying and waving a Jamaican flag kept giving the flag to Porter, who kept trading it off with her throughout the show. She was finally rewarded for her enthusiasm with a free cd. Beaming, she led another fan over to the roped-off area behind the stage, where they were sternly sent away by one of the roadies. The massive that turned out in full force for Burning Spear’s show here a few years ago was conspicuously absent, and the mostly West Indian, blue-collar Brooklyn Heights lunch-hour crowd seemed pretty sleepy. Which shouldn’t come as any surprise, considering the previous day’s subway flood and tornado hell. This was the last of the summer’s weekly Thursday noontime shows here that the Brooklyn Academy of Music puts together, a thoroughly irie way to play hooky from work and enjoy the unseasonably cool breezes beneath the trees. Jah give to I and I a respite!
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