Known for melding jazz with the sounds of his native Jamaica, pianist Monty Alexander has recorded more than 75 albums during his illustrious career. He’s made full-length tributes to Bob Marley and Nat Cole, among others. That’s why his new record, on which Alexander interprets the music of Thelonious Monk, seems long overdue. But Wareika Hill (Rasta-Monk Vibrations)
(MACD Records) is more than a homage; it’s a personal statement about Alexander’s roots, and a reconsideration of Monk’s music in the context of West Indian influences.
“When I would hear Thelonious Monk songs, I could feel something about so many of his melodies and rhythms that made them seem like they were influenced by an island feeling,” Alexander says. Research seemed to confirm his intuition, as Alexander learned that Monk grew up in a Manhattan neighborhood populated with immigrants from Jamaica, Barbados and other West Indian islands.
“He must have been hearing and feeling the people loving their national songs,” he says. “I sensed it would be a lot of fun to introduce Thelonious in a more specific way. I took such a pleasure in taking some of his songs and marrying them to Jamaican rhythms.”
Along with the rhythm section from Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express band, the album features several guest tenor saxophonists, including Joe Lovano and Wayne Escoffery — a nod to Monk’s collaborations with such great tenor men as John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse. The music is infectious throughout, and the arrangements reflect the diversity of Jamaican music, from the mento rhythms of “Nutty” to the more modern rub-a-dub style that infuses “Bye-Ya” to the traditional Rastafarian nyabinghi drums that amp up the intensity of “Brilliant Corners.”
Alexander grew up in Kingston, near Wareika Hill, where Rastafarians would conduct their rituals. Alexander senses in Monk and Rastafarians a shared sense of freedom. “My experience with the Rastafarian philosophy is a deep, deep awareness about how those people have found an alternative to the challenges in the world,” he says. “I saw in my mind, when I heard Monk’s music, it was almost like seeing a Rastafarian. The way he walked down the street, the way he talked, it was just … different. I saw a correlation in those two different worlds.”
For Alexander, who turned 75 in June, interpreting Monk is part of a personal journey he’s been exploring for the last several years. “As I grow older, the roots are coming up more and more inside of me. Not the branches, but the roots. I’m saying to everyone, ‘Enjoy this offering where I’m bringing some of my stuff and hooking it up with one of the masters of jazz,’ but I’m doing it my way because I’ve got my own story to tell.” —John Frederick Moore
Featured photo by Hollis King.