A decade ago, Monty Alexander started incorporating elements of his Jamaican youth — reggae and ska — into his all-swinging repertoire and style and started to distinguish himself among pianists under the sway of Oscar Peterson. It elevated him to a unique position among jazz musicians as few have drawn on the music of Bob Marley or his compatriot’s. Alexander’s proficient no matter what genre he ventures into, but his opening set of a four-night stay at Catalina was adequate, mild-mannered and old-fashioned — it could have just as easily been played 30 years ago.
Alexander’s latest album, “Rocksteady,” partners him with an old pal, the guitarist Ernest Ranglin for a set of jazzed-up Jamaican pop and vintage reggae; it’s fun-loving music, the sort they recorded as session men at Kingston’s Studio One in the 1960s. The presence of guitarist Russell Malone on the Catalina bill suggested he would play the Ranglin role, but instead he offered up something completely different –after playing a delicate and intricate solo version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” Malone flashed his brilliance in swing, Gershwin and blues idioms without ever making an island hop.
Alexander kept the material almost entirely on the mainland, with a hint of the Caribbean in the percussion. Opening with four tunes with just his quartet, he made Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” unrecognizable, dove into his own piece of melancholy on “Hope” and, after showcasing Malone on three songs in a trio setting, finally brought out trumpeter Wallace Roney.
Roney, who guested on two numbers, had a cheerfulness in his tone that complemented the efforts of Alexander and Malone. But if he was the one being counted on to get the sparks flying in this otherwise sedate setting, he came up empty. He never quite got the runs of soaring notes going, often choosing to wade through busy passages that didn’t stray too far from a middle range.
Truly it was Malone’s night and his exploration of blues, from the Piedmont, N.C., style to ragtime to Mississippi Delta to a 12-bar grind, was a veritable history lesson. He has brought similar flair to outings with Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and others yet it seems he has yet to get his due as a solo artist. His most recent disc, “Playground” on MaxJazz, captures him in a fine and fiery mood.