December 2002

Monty Alexander - My America
Telarc SACD-63552
Released: 2002

by John Potis

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment *****

It was America that held the greatest allure for Monty Alexander as he grew up in Jamaica in the '50s despite the prevailing British influence. When he was 17, his family moved to the land of his infatuation. In his latest SACD release, Alexander pays homage to his icons and heroes, including Count Basie, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown, among others. He also offers acknowledgments to silver-screen heroes and pop-culture icons such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers -- who to a young Alexander embodied the most universal and appealing aspects of the American Dream: freedom, individualism, strength of character, and frontier spirit.

Featuring duets with Freddy Cole, John Pizzarelli, and Kevin Mahogany, My America is a melting pot of musical styles, flavors and origins made modern and Alexander’s own through a healthy dose of his musical sensibilities. On first hearing it, I was reminded of the jazz of Flim and the BBs, but prolonged exposure has revealed a much more varied palette of flavors and infusions. It is that varied palette that makes My America so interesting hearing after hearing. Take, for instance, "Don’t Fence Me In," which starts with a piano intro that is distinctly ragtime before progressing to a more modern jazz tone and continuing with the occasional hint of country, with a smattering of electric guitar reminiscent of the early works of Les Paul. Even "Mack the Knife" and "Summer Wind" are infused with a bouncy reggae rhythm that brings them new life and vibrancy.

"Sexual Healing" is a vocal-free yet densely orchestrated piece that stands on its own whether or not you are a Marvin Gaye fan -- and is almost worth the price of the disc if you are. If not, the last cut on the SACD, "Battle Hymn of the Republic (Glory Hallelujah)" serves up a goose-bump-inducing, room-saturating, toe-tapping, good time that, at a shade over seven minutes long, is just too short, since it signals the end of the rousing good time. Just keep the remote handy and be ready to play this track again, as I usually do.

Though the recording makes limited use of the center-channel speaker, it makes full use of the rears. The soundstage mapping varies from song to song, with cuts such as "Don’t Fence Me In" reserving the rear channels for backing vocals. We’ve all heard drum kits that image laterally across the front of the stage, but "Sex Machine" features a drum kit that images front to back. Well, not really -- but it does place drummer Desi Jones at the front of the room and places hand-percussionist Bobby Thomas, Jr. at the rear, so the effect is just the same. Elsewhere, cuts such as "Battle Hymn of the Republic (Glory Hallelujah)" succeed by eschewing highly delineated images and just saturating the room with music. I doubt that even those preferring that all musicians remain at the front of the stage will mind too much, as the Telarc engineers have refrained from ping-pong-type effects, and the varied treatment of each song indicates the triumph of real artistic influence over that of silly show-boating. If you do mind, two-channel playback is always an option and sounds excellent, too.

Sonics, a Telarc trademark, are spectacular. A recording of true reference quality, My America has sound that doesn’t let the enthusiasm and optimism of the musical content down. Bass is deep, tight, and rich. Tonal colors are saturated and vibrant, and the recording has an immediate perspective that perfectly suits the music.

Overall, My America is a terrific presentation of exhilarating music that is decidedly American in origin but infused with the rhythms of Alexander’s Jamaican birthplace, making it familiar yet completely original and very entertaining. And given the nature of today’s world events, this disc's welcome celebration of America is perfectly timed. My America is going to remain in my "hot" stack for quite some time.