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Monty Alexander, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare - Monty Meets Sly & Robbie Print E-mail
Tuesday, 25 April 2000
Monty Meets Sly & Robbie (SACD),
Telarc, 2000
| Performance 7 | Sound 7 |

ImageNoted jazz pianist Monty Alexander goes back to his Jamaican roots in this interesting team-up with ultimate reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. The result is a pleasant fusion of jazz and reggae with dub overtones, but one with some limitations, both musical and technical.

The album features a number of hit tunes re-worked by this trio, ably assisted by Handel Tucker on keyboards and Desmond Jones’ drum fills, plus Jay Davidson on sax and Steve Jankowski on trumpet. The unit hits the ground running with a lively version of Herbie Hancock’s "Chameleon" and goes on to rework such classics as Joe Zawinul’s "Mercy, Mercy," "The In Crowd," Jackie Mittoo’s "Hot Milk" and more. There are 10 cuts in all, including a couple of Monty originals.

It’s an interesting combination. There’s little real reggae here, but what there is is a good combination of "soulful, jazzy numbers," as the liner notes put it, with an insistent, solid groove and a definite Jamaican taste. Having worked with Sly and Robbie many years ago when I was at Island Records, I was somewhat disappointed that there was not more reggae-oriented and "Jamaican" material on the album. While the cuts are well-known in most cases, the novelty of the stylings wears off after a while and they begin to sound a little too alike. There is also a tendency to be uncertain about how to end some of the pieces. Meanwhile, dub attempts generally play too safe, without the complete joy of stripping an arrangement down to its bare essentials on the fly and allowing us to get into the groove.

The performances are good from virtually all concerned, and most of the time Monty’s fluid piano-playing works successfully with the bass-and-drums groove, although in some cases the marriage is a little less at ease, with the two ends of the axis a bit at odds with each other. The drum fills and some of the percussion elements are rather too electronic for my taste – there were occasions when a sizzling drum machine across the back was really distracting, for example, and almost sounded like a technical problem with my replay equipment. These contributions also added a grittiness to the sound that was distracting at times.

In fact, the overall sound on this SACD is not what I have come to expect, either from Telarc or the medium. The audio quality in general was what I would expect from a good DTS CD, and did not exhibit the clean, smooth extended top end I have come to rely on from Super Audio CD. This is a hybrid multi-channnel disc, and comparing the stereo Red Book layer with the DSD stereo version did not reveal a massive difference. Mixing for 5.1 does spice up the sound, although the engineer has played it relatively safe, letting the bass and primary drum parts build a solid front stage, while extending percussion and other subsidiary parts around the surround stage. However, I found the piano itself a little difficult to localize – I sometimes had no real sense of where it was – and apart from across a fairly wide front stage, sources were rather sucked into the speakers. As I have noted before, this tendency is actually a failing of 5.1 as it is usually performed, but there are ways around it, notably the Ambisonic technology used on the Chesky Records Swing Live album reviewed a couple of months ago and soon to appear on several other releases – now at last there is a standard by which high-density surround releases can be judged and a number of albums are bound to pale beside it.

Generally speaking, I find that surround mixing adds a lot to a great deal of material, but here for some reason there is less benefit than one might hope. The surround is indeed more enveloping than the stereo, but it’s not the stunning expansion, like mono to stereo, that we have become used to. I am afraid I found that this album neither pushes the boundaries of surround nor the SACD medium. In addition, while undoubtedly pleasant, for me the arrangements generally fail to push the envelope.

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