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Monty Alexander: Jazz-Flavored Reggae

A jazz pianist raised in Jamaica, Monty Alexander is   the perfect choice to put a new spin on Bob Marley's "The Heathen."
Courtesy of the artist
A jazz pianist raised in Jamaica, Monty Alexander is the perfect choice to put a new spin on Bob Marley's "The Heathen."

Those who know jazz pianists know that Monty Alexander is one of the best around. In his teens in his native Jamaica, Alexander soaked up the sounds of Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. He went on to play with the musicians who eventually became Bob Marley's band, flew his fingers across the keys for Frank Sinatra, has recorded more than 60 albums, and earned a bit of fame outside the jazz world when a segment from his playful spin on Al Green's "Love and Happiness" was sampled by rapper Apache in "Gangsta Bitch."

In all his music, the 67-year-old Alexander's right-hand lines ring out with the power of a great vocalist, while his percussive left hand builds a strong foundation. When he improvises, he creates marvelously unexpected swirls of notes and cascades of occasionally dissonant chords.

That superb jazz sensibility blends with Alexander's reggae heritage on Harlem-Kingston Express: Live, largely recorded at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at New York's Lincoln Center. His cover of Bob Marley's "The Heathen" embraces the inevitable tension between a driving jazz pianist and the chug-a-chug pace of reggae. Alexander's piano strides forward in an explosive intro, then lays back to launch the song's devil-may-care melody. He even takes a break from the piano to play a sinuous solo on the melodica.

As the song weaves and bobs, the pianist's natural exuberance is tempered by the slower beat of the reggae musicians, and the reggae players are inspired to push a little bit harder by Alexander's pulsating rhythms and rich harmonies. Just as a heathen can sometimes come to the Lord, so jazz and reggae can find common ground.

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.