Jazz With A Jamaican Accent

Monty Alexander (left) and Ernest Ranglin are known for their fluency in both jazz and Jamaican popular music.
Monty Alexander (left) and Ernest Ranglin are known for their fluency in both jazz and Jamaican popular music. Credit: Peter Dean Rickards/Courtesy of the artist

Written by Matt Fleeger from KMHD-FM

Here we are in muggy late August — what the ancient Romans called the “dog days” of summer. For many of us, the season requires a certain soundtrack. Maybe it’s bossa nova, upbeat R&B or chilled-out electronic music, but for me, the perfect summer sound has a specific origin: the island of Jamaica.

While the island nation’s most famous musical invention is reggae, the pulse of all Jamaican music (including ska, dub, dancehall, mento and rocksteady) feels like summer. Each of these genres possesses infectious, upbeat tempos that inspire a relaxed feeling.

The selections here draw from these Jamaican musical inventions and meld them with the feeling of jazz. In each of these songs, one can hear the unmistakable tempo of ska, the precursor of reggae. Ska originated in the late ’50s and drew heavily from both American black music (including jazz) and Caribbean calypso.

Here we have an interesting situation where music that grew out of mid-century jazz has itself been re-interpreted, creating a new jazz sound in the process. It’s a sort of full-circle take on a little summer playlist.

Artist:  Monty Alexander and Ernest Ranglin

Album:  Rocksteady

Song:  Pressure Drop

Perhaps the most famous and successful Jamaican jazz musician of all time, Monty Alexander has often included musical nods to his homeland in his recorded output. While he’s known for his Oscar Peterson-influenced straight-ahead stylings, Alexander’s bright piano work also shines when he’s playing something with a ska or reggae rhythm. Here, he works with legendary jazz and ska guitarist Ernest Ranglin and vocalist Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals.


Artist:  Jazz Jamaican All Stars

Album:  Massive

Song:  Dolphin Dance

This 30-piece (!) ensemble makes a big sound. And, while there’s nothing new in the decision to reshape a jazz standard — in this case, Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” — the Jazz Jamaica All Stars do something truly special with this cut. This session was recorded and mixed in spectacular fashion, rewarding the listener with superb audio dynamics.


Artist:  Courtney Pine

Album:  House Of Legends

Song:  Kingstonian Swing

Here’s an upbeat sound from one of the U.K.’s leading saxophonists. Courtney Pine is a multi-instrumentalist who has produced many fine leader records over his career and even more stand-out appearances as a sideman. Pine’s parents were Jamaican immigrants, and one imagines that the skanking rhythm found in “Kingstonian Swing” was a part of his musical memories from childhood.


Artist:  Lennie Hibbert

Album:  Village Soul

Song:  Village Soul

The only “vintage” track on this list comes from the underappreciated vibraphonist Lennie Hibbert. His 1969 Studio One masterpiece Creation is a perfect blend of jazz, reggae, ska and R&B. In “Village Soul,” Hibbert’s resonant cadence on vibes follows a rhythm section that sounds like a perfect fusion of American soul-jazz and early Jamaican reggae.


Artist:  Floratone

Album:  Floratone

This group, put together under the direction of producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, matches the chameleon-like guitar work of Bill Frisell against Matt Chamberlain’s skillful and creative percussion. This track, which also features trumpeter Ron Miles, owes much of its sound to dub reggae, especially the reverberating drum beats.


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