Yesterday evening at the uptown Saturday night edition of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival, Monty Alexander explained that his most recent free outdoor concert here had been in Central Park. He didn’t bother to mention that his mid-90s performance there with guitarist Ernie Ranglin was one of the landmark musical events in this city over the past 25 years.
The pianist and leader of the Harlem-Kingston Express told the crowd that when he’d been booked for yesterday’s show, he’d asked the festival organizers where he’d be playing. When he found out that it would be Marcus Garvey Park, his response was, “Marcus Garvey Park? But Marcus Garvey is Jamaican!”
The exuberant reggae-jazz icon added that he hoped the park’s name wouldn’t be changed back to what it used to be (it was still Mount Morris Park back in 1967 when Alexander led a completely different band several blocks west at Minton’s).
Shifting into serious mode, he and the group launched into an amped-up version of the Burning Spear classic Marcus Garvey. Joshua Thomas, the group’s electric bassist sang it in a strong, soulful tenor, then in a split second the group segued into So What and took the tune doublespeed. All this dovetailed with the circumstances: Wynton Kelly, the pianist on Miles Davis’ original, was also Jamaican.
Until around the time of that legendary Central Park show, Alexander was regarded as a traditionalist and an expert at ballads. The collaboration with Ranglin, a fellow Jamaican icon, was a game-changer, and their reinvention of Bob Marley classics won both of them a global following far beyond the jazz world. Yet, as Alexander explained, he’s no less a jazz guy for loving reggae riddims. For Alexander, just like Ellington, there are two kinds of music.
This band is very much the first kind. There are two drummers, two basses and two keyboards including Alexander. Most of the time the Jamaican guys play the reggae material and the Americans do the swing stuff, but there’s plenty of overlap, and when both drummers and both bassists are going strong the sound can be epic.
One of the evening’s most anthemic, incisive numbers sounded like a version of the Abyssinians’s Satta Massagana: as with much of the other material, Alexander made a doublespeed swing blues out of it, then returned back to the original theme to wind it down. A little later, they used the opening riff from Marley’s Could You Be Loved to stir up a similar stew.
The most riveting solo of the night was from bassist Hassan Shakur, juxtaposing crushing chords and ghostly harmonics with a bluesy drive way up the fingerboard. Drummer Carl Radle played thunderous vaudeville against the beat, all but drowning the rest of the crew during his one irresistibly fun solo moment. Similarly, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery went for adrenaline, especially during the Coltrane solo in So What; the band’s trombonist was a bluesy, more low key foil.
Meanwhile, the electronic keyboardist played mostly clickety-clack clavinova behind Alexander’s spacious chords and regal blues phrases, adding organ on the biggest hit with the crowd, No Woman No Cry. They closed with a coy calypso medley that veered into Hava Nagila for a few bars, Alexander spiraling around on his melodica.
This was a tantalizingly short set, especially for these guys, which may portend what’s in store this afternoon at Tompkins Square Park where the festival began in 1993. Festivities start at 3 with a trio of young guns: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross. Iconic, rapturous AACM pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers follows at 4, there’s a corporate jazz act whose new pianist is way better than the last one, then postbop sax vet Gary Bartz leading a quartet to close things out at around 6. You might want to bring a folding chair if you have one because blanket space on the lawn will be limited.