Bridging reggae and jazz without losing the sound of either is a delicate balance. It generally means maintaining the heavy off-beat accents and syncopated basslines that hew toward ska without reining in the challenging harmonic substitutions of bebop. Pianist Monty Alexander has made a career of this endeavor, and his 13-track Harlem-Kingston Express Vol. 2: The River Rolls On, his Motéma follow-up to the group’s 2012 Grammy-nominated live album, deftly interweaves the island grooves of his Jamaican heritage with a straight-ahead jazz backdrop. Hence Alexander’s percussive rhythmic sensibility, contrasting that Maytals one-drop effect with his left hand and dissonant riffs with his right, and his predilection for sweeping lines inspired at once by Wailers riddims and former collaborator Milt Jackson’s fluid exploration of the high and low range.
Understated accompaniment over reggae vocals transitions into polyrhythmic bursts reminiscent of Herbie Nichols, a duality enlivened by an ensemble that unites Alexander’s familiar players with a Jamaican rhythm section: bassist Hassan Shakur, drummers Karl Wright and Obed Calvaire and guitarists Andy Bassford and Yotam Silberstein, alongside Jamaican artists Earl Appleton (keys), Joshua Thomas (bass) and Courtney Panton (percussion).
This seamless genre blending traces Alexander’s cross-cultural inspirations: a plangent cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” a modal take on the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round,” a calypso-infused cover of Miles Davis’ “Concierto de Aranjuez” with references to “So What,” and the totemic soul hit “What’s Going On” reinterpreted with a rocksteady beat. The album’s highlight, Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” expertly blends taut ensemble playing and organ grease; Alexander transforms the reggae iconoclast’s populist anthem into a hard-swinging funk tour de force that evokes the endless vistas of the tropics with the shuffle of 125th Street.