Rhythm & Views

Monty Alexander with Ernest Ranglin

On first hearing about this album's concept--jazz versions of classic reggae tunes--listeners might be a little wary. But with a pair of players as seasoned and fluid as Jamaican natives Monty Alexander and Ernest Ranglin making the music, Rocksteady makes natural sense.

Born in Kingston, pianist Alexander left the island in 1961 to play with artists such as Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones and Natalie Cole.After years playing the jazz circuit, Alexander decided to record a tribute to the great reggae and ska exported from his homeland during the 1960s and '70s. He enlisted journeyman reggae guitarist Ranglin, and they recorded 12 tracks relatively quickly, during a four-day period in New York City last summer.

The result is a killer album packed with scintillating improvisation and easy-skanking grooves that exhibit the push-pull dynamics of the best reggae. Alexander's piano and Ranglin's guitar bob and weave like artful puglists, dancing around iconic tunes such as the Skatalites' "Confucious," Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."

Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" is a marvel of swinging piano and burbling bass lines. Although there is much to love here, the album's centerpiece is Toots & the Maytals' "Pressure Drop," on which Toots Hibbert himself adds some electrifying patois-style scatting. Doesn't get better than that.

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