Harlem-Kingston Express is Monty Alexander’s second release this year, like its predecessor a live collection that emphasizes the pianist’s breadth. Where the sequel differs is more than hinted at in its title: Alexander is from Jamaica, and for years he has entwined elements of Caribbean music with what he’s learned from such North American icons as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Nat King Cole. Uplift, the earlier release, nodded to the island influence with a closing medley that tilted toward calypso, but the new one constitutes one of Alexander’s most overt statements to date drawing the direct line from jazz to Jamaica.
The connection is most sublimely evidenced on Alexander’s take on Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown.” For half the tune, Alexander and band—on one of several tracks recorded at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York—hew to the spacey, bass-driven tenets of dub reggae, only to shift dramatically and unexpectedly midway into a steamy Latin-jazz interlude and then back again. “Freddie Freeloader (Riddim)” takes the Miles classic and welds it to an insistent beat that suggests disco more than reggae, saved only by dazzling Alexander piano work that boasts the inventiveness and surprise element of Monk.
Not all of the program drives home the Jamaican influence, though, and frankly, it’s the purer jazz moments that prove to be the highlights. The closing two-fer of “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” in fact, is so cheesy as to border on the kind of touristy fodder one might expect to encounter on a cruise ship. Much more impressive are the swinging reconstruction of the early R&B hit “Hi Heel Sneakers” and a reprise of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Alexander included the latter on Uplift too, but he so thoroughly kills it that we should encourage him to toss the tune onto any of his albums.