Always one of the hardest-swinging mainstream pianists in the business, Jamaican-born Monty Alexander lately has become one of the most enterprising of that breed, investigating his island heritage on a series of Telarc Jazz albums. Yet while bare hints of that direction crept into his opening set at the Jazz Bakery Tuesday night, this was, for the most part, a traditional jazz trio date for Alexander — and a satisfying one at that.
Alexander has been nothing if not audacious on CDs lately, trying to combine a Jamaican “riddim” section with a jazz group on the 1999 Bob Marley tribute album “Stir It Up” and going all out with the Jamaicans on his more successfully blended current release, “Goin’ Yard.” This bridge-building toward reggae could have profound implications for jazz as it tries to harness the power and appeal of global music — and who better than a native Jamaican to attempt it?
With just a piano trio on hand, though, Alexander was understandably more limited in means than on his recent recordings, and the first set often gravitated naturally toward the jazz mainstream, with hardly a trace of the upside-down reggae gait. Nevertheless, the trio cooked, propelled by a drummer (Mark Taylor) who could stir up the most quietly compelling, feather-light grooves on rimshots — ideally suited for this room.
Alexander was able to adapt some of his compositions from “Goin’ Yard” — the churchy, funky “Trust”; the reflectively rolling “Hope”; and light-hearted “Sight Up!” — to this less exotic format, with the thick reggae electric bass on the album replaced by the strong, swinging acoustic bass work of the talented 21-year-old Brandon Owens. And there were other cross-cultural streams flowing in the opening number, where Alexander flitted between cascades of solo-piano classical arpeggios, “Caravan,” and the calypso “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” running the groove on “Caravan” in an Ahmad Jamal manner at one point.
In any case, Alexander is still growing at an age (57) when most musicians are long set in their ways — and one wonders how his reggae explorations may influence his future everyday trio work.