Some may be surprised to know that reggae music actually has deep roots in jazz. Ska, reggae's stylistic precursor, came into being as a fusion of Jamaican mento, calypso, and American R&B, but some of its earliest and best players were Kingston jazz musicians, and early ska tunes were very often characterized by swinging rhythms and walking basslines. Ska eventually slowed down and its rhythms shifted, resulting first in the short-lived "rocksteady" style before it slowed further and became reggae, which dominated the island's music scene for a decade and a half before eventually being supplanted by the more raucous dancehall style. Pianist Monty Alexander has been bringing jazz back to reggae music (and vice versa) for decades; Harlem-Kingston Express finds him in a live setting, continuing to explore the connections between traditional reggae and straight-ahead jazz while also forging new ones. An example of the latter approach is his strange but intriguing take on the dub reggae classic "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown." The original tune was a dub remix of Jacob Miller's "Baby I Love You So," mixed by the legendary producer King Tubby and embellished by Augustus Pablo's melodica; it is considered by many to be the finest example of 1970s dub ever recorded. Alexander starts out playing the tune more or less straight, taking the melodica part himself -- then suddenly, the ensemble erupts into a frantic Afro-Cuban middle section before modulating and coming back to the original theme. Elsewhere, he delivers a brisk but unexceptional take on "Sweet Georgia Brown," a partly successful reggae adaptation of the jazz standard "Freddie Freeloader," and a surprisingly perfect arrangement of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry." Alexander continues to be a highly effective ambassador between two once-fraternal musical styles that have sadly lost touch with each other since childhood. Here's hoping he plans to do a Jackie Mittoo tribute album at some point.
AllMusic Review by Rick Anderson