Monty Alexander was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and came to the United States in 1961. In a flash, he had a gig in Vegas, where he was spotted by Jilly Rizzo and was soon accompanying Sinatra, then vibes player Milt Jackson. A jazz pianist of genuine bona fides, Mr. Alexander has also explored his Caribbean roots in numerous releases—he’s known for playing with steel drum masters, for example.
Concrete Jungle is the latest of many reggae/ska projects by Mr. Alexander. Stir It Up, Monty Meets Sly and Robbie, Rocksteady and Goin’ Yard all put Mr. Alexander’s nimble jazz fingers into a reggae groove as well. It’s tempting to hear it all as a somewhat uncomfortable fusion, frankly. But the blend is easy. Mr. Alexander is a fine but mostly mainstream player, the kind of guy who has shape-shifted over the years to fit various projects, but rarely stamped them with his own unique sound. And so, here, the main soloist is Mr. Alexander, but the main personality is Bob Marley.
There are two distinct rhythm sections at work on Concrete Jungle—Mr. Alexander’s jazz trio (with Hassan Shakur on bass and Herlin Riley on drums), and a more traditional reggae group (Glenroy Browne on electric bass, Rolando Alphanso Wilson on drums, Wendel Ferraro’s guitar, and Othniel Lewis on keyboards). Regardless of who is playing, the songs’ grooves always get around to a reggae feel eventually. So this is not an album of “jazz treatments” of Marley songs. Even on the gently acoustic “Babylon System”, featuring acoustic bass and Riley’s brushes, the upbeat taste of reggae is the most prominent spice. This is not “Swingin’ Bob!” And that can only be a good thing.
A few songs truly do rock steady. “Concrete Jungle” begins with pastoral solo piano, but the groove kicks in strong and the cry “It’s a jungle out there!” puts thoughts of jazz to rest. Mr. Alexander solos on melodica (a wind-driven keyboard that sounds a bit like a harmonica), as does Mr. Shakur, but the feel is pure Marley. “War” grooves even harder. The opening duet between vocalist Luciano and Mr. Alexander is as sweet as the album gets, but the rhythm section soon starts a slow burn that echoes the lyrics: “Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there will be war”.
Many of the instrumental tracks cook over a reggae flame as well. “Crazy Baldheads” and “Simmer Down” are features for Mr. Alexander’s bluesiest acoustic sound, and also for trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. “Trench Town” lets the piano have plenty of space to noodle gracefully, offset by very tasty arrangements for a front line of trumpet, saxophone, and trombone, suggesting a kind of détente between Marley, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Art Blakey. “Forever Lovin’ Jah” and “Chant Down Babylon” are more straight piano features that feel natural and easy, sure, but maybe a tad too “reggae lite” in the way Mr. Alexander colors up the arrangements with fancy licks, jazz harmonies, and cute left-hand countermelodies.
The subtitle of this disc is “The Tuff Gong Sessions” because the disc was recorded in the legendary studio where Bob Marley and the Wailers made their classic recordings. It so happens that this studio was also the first one that Mr. Alexander recorded in, back around 1958, before reggae had exploded on the world. Mr. Alexander’s fascinating liner notes point out that Jamaica was another of those unique nodes or mixing spots for American music—a place where African, European, and other traditions mixed and remixed into something great and unique. This record reaches for some of that blending and gets a long way there. It ends with a Jamaican folk reading of “Three Little Birds” (“Every little thing / Is gonna be alright”), then a tune of Mr. Alexander’s for solo piano—another gentle folk song that seems to lament a great man’s passing.
Fans of Bob Marley may find this rendering of the great man’s music somewhat bleached out with “jazz styling”, but as a vehicle for one Jamaican to find common ground with his brother, it suggests classic Marley virtues: unity and One Love.