New York pianists such as Bud Powell have long built their careers on their jazz interpretations of New York pop songs by writers like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. So why shouldn't a Jamaican pianist do the same with his jazz interpretations of Jamaican pop songs? That's the logic behind Monty Alexander's new album, "Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley." The all-instrumental project works wonderfully, because Alexander strikes just the right balance between preserving Marley's delightful melodies and reggae rhythms and transforming those materials into jazz harmonies with a bebop feel.
Alexander recorded two numbers ("Jammin' " and his original tribute to Marley, "Nesta (He Touched the Sky)" with a straight-ahead, American jazz quartet. The other 10 tunes, though, were cut with a Jamaican reggae band, and on these the give-and-take between Alexander's Bill Evans-like phrasing and the "riddim" section's island beat yields fascinating results.
On the title track, for example, Alexander announces the familiar refrain over the band's steady rhythm, but soon the pianist is altering the melody and phrasing so it slips in and out of the groove. Sometimes the piano skips across the pulsing bass accents; sometimes it pulls against them with pauses and 16th-note runs; sometimes it locks into the beat. Guitarist Robert Angus often follows Alexander's lead, and on two numbers Steve Turre builds a bridge between ska trombone and bop trombone. Reggae legend Sly Dunbar even provides a dancehall remix of "Could You Be Loved" as a bonus track.
Appearing Thursday and June 4 at Blues Alley. To hear a free Sound Bite from Monty Alexander, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)