“Like a Rastafarian in Jamaica, he was different,” Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander says of Thelonious Monk, whom he first heard in person at New York City’s legendary Five Spot in 1963. Monk soon became a major influence on Alexander’s music, which was rooted in the reggae and ska of his native country as well as the jazz he absorbed first in Kingston studios and later when he moved to New York. On Wareika Hill (RastaMonk Vibrations), a collection of fresh reinterpretations of Monk gems, Alexander effectively nails his hero’s idiosyncrasies.
Recorded over the course of several years, the album features Alexander and a core group of players plus a few guests, including guitarist John Scofield, who injects keening, wah-edged lines into the rub-a-dub of “Bye-Ya.” Joe Lovano delivers an edgy tenor romp on a percussion-heavy “Green Chimneys,” which opens up for a piano solo that has the leader tossing in an introductory quote of John Barry’s James Bond theme.
Wareika Hill is packed with sly reboots of classic material. A live-in-Paris version of “Well, You Needn’t” alternates between something akin to a dancehall rhythm and swing, and features provocative turns by tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and trombonist Andrae Murchison. “Bemsha Swing” opens with unaccompanied stride-style piano before sliding into roots-reggae and later turning to straight-ahead jazz. “Brilliant Corners” is remade with a melody played on melodica and piano over a sticky, chugging groove, pulsing Nyabinghi drums, and a bass line that incorporates part of the theme.
There are other treats here too, including the ever playful “Rhythm-a-Ning,” with more outings by Escoffery and Alexander, on an arrangement inspired by a Bob Marley recording. “Nutty,” also with Escoffery, is built on mento rhythms. And “San Francisco Holiday” shifts from Jamaican brukins rhythm to swing, benefiting from Ron Blake’s gritty tenor turn.
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