SACD Stock: Telarc SACD 63581, CD 83581
Monty Alexander has been turning out an average of at least one album per year for more than thirty years. This release is the fifth in the past few years helping Telarc to increase its presence in the worlds of jazz and blues along with typically fine sound quality and even surround sound. You should pay close attention to the comments regarding the audio quality mentioned later in this review, there is something uniquely (in my experience at least) happening.
Monty's stylistic approach is once again in evidence on this disc continuing what has made him increasingly popular after joining Telarc's growing stable of outstanding performers. Here, in addition to his famous pianistic abilities he seems to be enjoying a few passages showcasing his performance on the melodica. The melodica is a type of mouth organ. In other words, you can think of the melodicas (there are two very different versions) as super-duper harmonicas or simply as more versatile. On this recording Monty is using the "piano melodica" which features a miniature keyboard with approximately one key for every letter of the alphabet. The other type is the very different "soprano melodica" which features a smaller number of push keys. Ernest Ranglin, Alexander's special guest on this recording, is from the same country as Monty. Do you know which country? The answer is to be found at the end of this paragraph. There was a period of time more than forty years ago when Monty was generally acclaimed the greatest and hottest jazz piano player in the country while Ernie enjoyed the same reputation with his guitar playing. Soon after arriving in New York City in the late fifties, the great George Benson presented Ranglin with a George Benson model Gibson Guitar. As outstanding as he was and still is, Ernie was almost always a sideman or shared billing on recordings. Monty Alexander has regularly fronted his own group and still does. Ernie and Monty first played together forty-five years ago and their first recording was released approximately ten years later. These two great musicians plus the famous reggae vocalist/ musician Bob Marley are probably the most recognized musical names from Jamaica.
The songs on this recording share a Jamaican or reggae heritage and for the most part were composed in the era around nineteen seventy. The first two selections are played in a fairly straightforward jazz style with strong hints of bop as well as reggae thrown in. Near the beginning of the second tract, "Confucius", Alexander plays around with the melodica for a short time. Ernie's contribution seems to be a straightforward guitar-picking accompaniment. On the standard CD of this recording all the instrumentalists are recorded with a very natural balance and acoustic setting. Hassan Shakur's acoustic bass playing leads credence to the album's title of Rocksteady. As a historical note, "rocksteady" was the Jamaican style of music preceding reggae and almost assuredly is the inspiration for this recording's title. Other Latin or Jamaican touches (translate as reggae or offbeat rhythms) on keyboards, drum/cymbals or percussion seem to "fit or fill in" almost perfectly. The following "Stalag 17" track is done in an easy or cool jazz style as is often typical of Monty Alexander and regarded by many as Oscar Peterson's personal influence on him. On "East of the River Nile" Monty's melodica playing is definitely featured and adds a unique and seemingly appropriate counterpoint contrast. Also on this track, the hand drums add an even stronger reggae hint than that perceived on some of the other tracks. Here again the lead and rhythm guitars' playing and picking is done in a very cool and relaxed style. Overdubs were not done on this recording, just as in the old days.
The interplay between piano, guitar, acoustic bass and the other instruments on the "Freedom Street" track, is particularly well handled. Plain old fine musicianship is evident overall and not just on this track. At times it seems as if Alexander is holding back a bit as if trying not to dominate the group. Toots, of the Maytals' fame, dropped in and added his vocal talents to a single song here, "Pressure Drop". The album ends very appropriately with Bob Marley's famous composition, "Redemption Song". No dueling here between Monty and Ernie as they collaborate exquisitely on this beautiful piece that has melodic passages that should sound familiar to you while awakening memories of Bob Marley. Remember that he was given the UN Peace Medal in 1978 and died three years later at only thirty-six years of age.
The audio quality of these recordings, and I have both the standard CD release as well as the hybrid SACD discrete multi-channel surround version, requires discussion. The CD release is just about as good as they come and is typical of Telarc's latest jazz and classical releases. Solid exemplary bass response, rich middle frequency tonal balance and an extended sweet high end is found here. On my main, stereo only, system a subtle improvement arises when using the up sampling 192 kHz mode. A bit of even greater clarity can then be heard and a sense of more detail and "air" in the extreme high end. Almost no difference is heard when simply substituting the hybrid SACD pressing.
Switching to my surround sound system or so called "home theater" set up using the Sony SACD multi-channel surround sound player, resulted in an unexpected shock for me when using the SACD surround sound pressing! Monty Alexander with his great sense of jazz and reggae rhythms was right there in front of me with his piano and melodica. Ranglin's guitar and Shakur's bass were also there naturally spread across the soundscape with presence and depth and essentially making Shakur the third soloist on the album. As Richard Nixon had said, "let me make this perfectly clear", the drums, rhythm guitar and rhythm keyboard were not there in front of me! These instruments were clearly and cleanly behind me! The left rear channel was presenting Gary Mayone on the rhythm keyboard while Junior Jazz was just as clearly heard in the right rear channel playing rhythm guitar and Quentin Baxter was playing his drums in both rear channels which can result in being heard as a center channel depending on many variables, particularly your listening position.
This effect is done deliberately on this recording. Adrian Mills, vice president A&R of Telarc Records believes that this aggressive mix is particularly suited to this music. He also mentioned that the previous Monty Sly and Robbie surround SACD album has a similar rear channel mix. My favorite Monty Alexander release, Blue Rhapsody, did not receive the same treatment. The more I listened to this recording the more I tend to agree, as it definitely highlights the fine rhythm section as well as the soloists. It is also true that you need to be aware of the situation, as simply turning down the volume on the rear channels does not correct this different perspective. Also realize that the recording may be used as a demonstration of the possibilities and flexibility of the surround channels. No matter, I believe that this sort of unusual or unique mix should be noted on the jewel case and perhaps a name coined for it. How about dimensionally challenging?
You pay your money and make your choice. In either case you wind up with a recording of extremely high audio quality played by a group of absolutely top-notch musicians. What more would you ask for?