Sharps & flats

Jazz pianist Monty Alexander's gutsy vision stirs up Bob Marley's greatest hits.

Published May 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The music of Bob Marley has been so mercilessly mangled, so often and by so many, that it's wise to listen to any new interpretations with extreme caution. Monty Alexander's "Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley," however, approaches Marley's songs with the same sort of vigor and creativity that the Jamaican master brought to his own work.

Alexander, the under-appreciated pianist whose style has been influenced by Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris, has the right cred for the venture. He was born in Kingston a year before Marley, for starters, and as a teenager he played in the city's recording studios and nightclubs before moving to Miami. He's also never been averse to mixing West Indian rhythms with bebop, as evidenced by his work with his Ivory and Steel group, and 1992's "Caribbean Circle" album.

"Stir It Up" boasts a freaky concept that invigorates Marley's songs. On the record, two separate rhythm sections -- the five-piece Gumption, from Jamaica, and a jazz trio anchored by drummer Troy Davis -- pass segments of each song to one another, back and forth within the same piece. The concept allows Alexander to open up the songs and tweak their older arrangements. On "Jammin'," for instance, he playfully taps out the melody in a jazzy opening section before hitching to the riddim players. Later in the tune, he shuttles back for some hard-driving swing.

Alexander knows that he's on to something and he's not afraid to latch on to it, employing the two-band technique on "Is This Love?" and "No Woman No Cry." Alexander's two worlds collide most impressively on "I Shot the Sheriff," which is laced with his imaginative extended piano improvisation and trombonist Steve Turre's earthy conch-shell utterances.

Alexander amplifies the riskiness of the entire affair with a "bonus" remix of "Could You Be Loved," featuring renowned reggae producer/drummer Sly Dunbar. It's odd for any mainstream player to attempt a set of reggae covers, and it's almost unheard of for a serious jazz musicians to make dance remixes. Alexander, however, makes it work. The track, after a tentative start, settles into a deep-throb groove that stops shy of six minutes, still jamming so fluently that it feels like it ought to go on forever. Give it to an adventurous dance-club DJ, and maybe it will.

By Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a freelance writer in Tampa, Fla.

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