[4 May 2004]
I first saw the name of the guitarist Ernest Ranglin on one of the few label listings on which British schoolboys could find the then very rare blues 45. Island Records had their core market among the West Indian population that had been encouraged to come to England from the late 1940s as a sort of immigrant workforce. Ranglin is now very much the veteran performer, without perhaps having been the sort of boy wonder Monty Alexander once was. Monty Alexander is now himself a veteran, with literally dozens of album releases to his name.
When he started to be heard more than thirty years back, Alexander was already a virtuoso—though the first thing I heard sounded more slick than anything else, as if he’d heard the surface of Oscar Peterson but missed out on the deeper substance: many of the same notes but not the same expression.
The impression of youth was perhaps extended to the time he played with Peterson’s old mates, and his seniors by some years, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis in the trio called Triple Treat. His playing had by then put on depth, but Brown and Ellis were capable of working with whatever intrinsic qualities this pianist’s music expressed and making a virtue of the breezy fleetness and easy swing Alexander had from his earliest days. You can hear them on Concord. Of course he had much more, as a the sampling of his playing in trio with Ray Brown (and Greg Hutchinson drumming?) on the recent Ray Brown memorial set made joyously blatant.
On this set, Maestri Alexander and Ranglin play in ensembles including bass and drums, sometimes bass guitar, and sometimes organ or keyboards, Alexander taking up melodica on some items—and often an extra guitar combining with a very good drummer to do the sort of regular, loping rhythmic figures characteristic of what was called ska when I scoured catalogues for, say, Homesick James. The duty of keeping the rhythm steady is duly performed, yet it does not decline into the mechanical.
Ranglin is a very capable guitarist, but I can’t say he’s playing jazz here without recognising that he never solos for terribly long, or that he could equally be said here simply to play very long fill-ins. Pretty much the same can be said of Alexander, whose fingers are on non-piano keyboards on some titles. He’s simply a musician in a higher class of style and accomplishment than it’s wise to dare to get used to in this cheerful sort of music. He has waxed lyrical in more than a handful of interviews about all the Jamaican music around him when he grew up, which was edited out from his earlier, slicker jazz playing.
Now, of course, musical fashion is all for his bringing in or surrounding himself with something like that Jamaican music, and here he’s relaxing in sunny home territory, with the accent on relaxing. It’s supremely tasteful rather than exciting, soothing, not shy of pop cliché though indulging in few. There are no horns, and there’s no need to ever sound one. It’s a melodious lope pretty well all through, with a rare exception in “Redemption Song”, which begins with the kind of humming along that Jay McShann has been known to go in for. I don’t know who’s doing the vocalising—the reviewer’s kit arrived a little short on such useful information (who are the expert other musicians?)—but the singer gets louder, and righteous, and shouting on what’s like a sort of eight bar blues. The instrumental ensemble has been stripped back to piano, guitar, bass, and drums, and accordingly there’s more space than on the vast majority of tracks. Mostly anytime Alexander starts to cut loose he only goes so far, and then displays exceptional finesse in merging back into the ensemble. There’s nothing else to single out, though, very happy music and much more Jamaica (World!) than jazz. The notes I did get tell me Alexander cut his teeth playing on something similar with Ranglin & Co, and it might be interesting to compare the results, Heavens, forty years apart.