During his 50-year career in music, the Jamaican-American composer, pianist and melodica player has shared stages and studios with a gamut of superstars. Not only did Alexander accompany the legendary Frank Sinatra, but he has also performed with other superstars such as Dizzie Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Ray Brown, Wynton Marsalis, Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby and Bobby McFerrin.
Alexander’s influence on music has been duly noted. In the 2005 book, “The Greatest Jazz Pianists of All Time,” he was named among the top five.
Yet, unlike many musicians whose careers derail, Alexander has remained on track and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, reviewers say, he is gaining steam. His latest release, “Monty Alexander Harlem-Kingston Express Live!” (Motéma Music), a cross-cultural hit that artfully melds jazz and reggae, is nominated for Best Reggae Album at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (The ceremony takes place Feb. 12 in Los Angeles and will be broadcast live on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)
Check out this amazing video of Monty Alexander & the Harlem-Kingston Express performing in France in 2010.
News of the album’s Grammy nomination on Nov. 30 caught Alexander by surprise in his New York home.
“I’ve been up and down the musical highways for many years and the most exciting aspect has always been making the music, but to hear that the music industry noticed anything I've done is amazing and makes me feel very honored,” said Alexander, 67, who began playing piano at age four.
His mastery of the piano and the melodica, an instrument resembling a large harmonica with a keyboard, resonates throughout “Harlem-Kingston Express: Live!” Recorded at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center) in New York City in 2010 and at performances in Jamaica, Germany, France and Holland, the album steamrolled to #1 on the U.S. radio jazz and world charts this summer.
Along with new takes on Bob Marley's "The Heathen" and "No Woman, No Cry," the album includes Alexander's original "Strawberry Hill" (named for one of his cherished Jamaican haunts), and a special interpretation of the Milt Jackson jazz classic, "Compassion."
Despite the new Grammy nomination, Alexander remains humble. “I’m grateful for everything I’ve experienced so far in the music world and looking forward to what the future may bring,” he added.
In addition to receiving his first Grammy nomination, 2011 has also been a landmark year in other ways for Alexander. To celebrate his 50th anniversary in music, he also released another critically-acclaimed album in June - “Uplift” (Jazz Legacy Productions)
Along with releasing two major hits, Alexander toured extensively in Europe, Asia and America. His whirlwind year culminates with two major U.S. performances:
• Lincoln Center in NYC on Dec. 9-10
• Blues Alley in Washington , D.C. on Dec. 28-31
Without missing a beat, Alexander is already gearing up for an exciting 2012, including a possible two-week special performance in February at the legendary Blue Note in NYC, which will feature guest performers from his past and present. Plus, he’s working out details to record a new studio Harlem-Kingston Express CD. As the group’s engineer and conductor, he has announced that the new project is “full steam ahead!”
As if that’s not enough excitement, the energetic musician, who was bestowed the title of Commander in the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 2000 and serves as a worldwide music ambassador for his home country, is also planning several events next year to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Jamaica’s Independence, which coincides with Alexander's 50th anniversary in music.
Born in Kingston in 1944, Alexander grew up absorbing Caribbean music, listening to his mother sing soulful jazz tunes and attending concerts by Louis Armstrong and Nat "King" Cole at Kingston's Carib Theater.
Although he is most widely known in Jazz, Alexander was a pioneer of the Jamaican "yard" movement. His first band, "Monty and The Cyclones," formed in the late '50s, focused on native Jamaican music (mento, ska and R&B). Early performances can be heard on seminal reggae recordings from Federal Recording Studio, which later launched the careers of Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and others. Over the years, his strong,
swinging style was influenced by greats such as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Ahmad Jamal.
Alexander’s family moved to Miami in 1961. Soon he was playing in local clubs. Within a few years, he was a member of Art Mooney’s orchestra in Vegas, where he was spotted by Frank Sinatra and Jilly Rizzo, who owned a famous New York City club. In a flash, Alexander was working at the legendary Jilly’s, accompanying Sinatra and other greats such as Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson and legendary bassist Ray Brown.
Over the decades, doors continued to open for Alexander as others found out about his unique versatility. In 1991, he assisted vocalist Natalie Cole with a tribute to her father, Nat “King” Cole. The album, “Unforgettable,”
In 2008, Alexander was invited by Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center in NYC, to conceive and direct a new program for Jazz at Lincoln Center. The result was the acclaimed Lords of the West Indies Series. The next year, he returned to the Lincoln Center with another new creation, Harlem-Kingston Express. Since then, the train has been rolling steadily down the right track with tremendous radio airplay and sold-out shows around the globe.
For Alexander, the journey has just begun.
“With Harlem-Kingston Express, we are looking to bridge the gap, connecting people from various walks of life," reflects Alexander. "I want to reach the people of Jamaica, the people of America, the people everywhere. It’s exciting to see such diverse crowds at the shows. No matter where we perform, we see people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds in the audience, which is what I want. We’re off to a great start, but we’ve still got a lot of miles to cover and a lot of songs to play."
For more information, visit http://www.montyalexander.com.