To really appreciate the recent weekend performances of pianist Monty Alexander, guitarist Ernest Ranglin and reggae singer Chronixx at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club, a bit of Jamaican music history is in order. On one end of that history stands 81-year-old guitarist Ernest Ranglin, whose early contributions to rhythm guitar on the island helped set the foundation for ska music. Not far along on the spectrum is the Kingston-born Monty Alexander, a largely self-taught musician who learned to play piano while jamming as a teen with local performers before going on to become an internationally known jazz artist. On the very other end is the 20-something Chronixx, who in the span of the last two years has reinvigorated band-driven roots reggae in Jamaica and beyond. Finding all three of these men on stage in a New York jazz club on a chilly winter evening in January made it a truly unique event.
Headlining the bill was Monty Alexander, who took the stage first. During his 30-minute set, Alexander, along with a few other musicians, started off with some reggae beats mixed with jazz rhythms. That led to a few Alexander originals and a heartfelt piano-led rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs” and “No Woman No Cry.”
Ernest Ranglin joined shortly after and the two played an unnamed original that was first written in the 1960s, according to Ranglin. The two strayed from Jamaican music for a bit with a guitar-piano medley of some classic American folk tunes with a fair amount of jazz riffing. To add to the already eclectic set, Alexander, Ranglin and company then dropped a bass-heavy reggae backbeat improvisation that would have made Jack Ruby blush. Of course, it was not without its jazz accents. After all, this is the Blue Note, not Kingston.
The two Jamaican jazz legends gave the stage to Chronixx shortly after, who was backed by a few members of his own ZincFence Band. When one sees Chronixx live with his full band in a fully electric setting it becomes immediately obvious why he has become so popular. While his recorded songs sometimes might feel a bit saccharine or seem to be missing that hard-hitting, bass-heavy reggae sound of old, his live sets are ever-engaging and his stage presence undeniable. In the carpeted, well-lit confines of the Blue Note backed by a small combo, Chronixx may have seemed at first out of his element. He didn’t show it, though, choosing to turn down the energy but as a result turn up the cool. Sporting a pair of shades, the young artist was relaxed and full of smiles. And when the music hit, he was all business as usual despite the subdued environment.
After a few of his own tunes, Ranglin and Alexander joined Chronixx and the ZincFence Band for an extended version of the singer’s tune “Dread.” The young performer explained beforehand that the Re-Birth riddim of “Dread” was taken from Eek-A-Mouse’s “Ganja Smuggling” which was based on Ernest Ranglin’s tune “Surfin’.”
Those familiar with Jamaican music history and styles understand that it is a very communal process. Rhythms are constantly reused, studio bands back hundreds of different singers while lyrics and music constantly reference or pay homage to other songs from the past. With Alexander, Ranglin and Chronixx on stage together, even for just 10 minutes, that ever-present musical reference became suddenly live and explicit. The result was a rare and special event for fans of Jamaican music, even if it was very much outside the realm of most live Jamaican music shows.
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