MONTY Alexander's new album "The River" is both a jazz odyssey and a jazz oddity. It's an odyssey because it takes the listener on a journey that reveals another dimension of the Jamaican-born pianist's interests and skills as a composer and arranger; an oddity because it contains performances of Franz Shubert's "Ave Maria," the African-American spiritual "Ain't Gonna Study War No More" and the traditional gospel tune "How Great Thou Art."
For all its vitality, "The River" is also one of Alexander's most intimate and heartfelt recordings, and not just because he performs some of his own material or because he plays hand-in-glove with bassist John Clayton and drummer Ed Thigpen. While the close rapport he enjoys with his sessionmates certainly pays dividends, as Clayton's haunting arco refrain on "Ave Maria" or Thigpen's sharply syncopated accents on "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" demonstrate, that's nothing new -- Alexander has always kept good company in the studio.
What really sets the album apart is the almost palpable affection Alexander has for the older pieces on the album, the religious themes that helped shape his skills as a pianist and the way he expresses it through passages of serene beauty and rhythmic joy.
MONTY ALEXANDER -- "The River" (Concord). Appearing through Sunday at Blues Alley.