The Definition of Insanity
Tony Monaco is a world class Hammond B3 player, mentioned in the same conversation with greats like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Shirley Scott. This is his eleventh album as a leader and it’s his most, as the title may suggest, wildly eclectic. Buoyed by a recent recovery from an artery blockage and the birth of his son, Monaco felt like he needed to change it up. Typically, this do-it-all musician offers mostly his own compositions but here he not only mostly covers others but crosses genres and continents in the process. In another departure from his typical repertoire, Monaco plays accordion and piano as well as sings on a couple.
The “do-it-all” mention is because Monaco played, arranged, produced, recorded, mixed and mastered the album. Its pristine sound is a result of his diligent work. Monaco hails from Columbus, OH and brought in some of the region’s top musicians or support. Guitarist Derek Dicenzo (Monty Alexander, Jim Hall, Charlie Byrd), his usual gigging drummer Tony McClung, and his wife, pianist Asako Monaco, all support although Asako appears on just the ballad, “Never Let Me Go,” in tribute to the recent passing of Monaco’s friend, trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
From Phish and Grateful Dead jams to nostalgic Italian standards in homage to his mother, to musical strains from Brazil and Turkey, to tunes from classic jazz composers, Monaco stretches out. It reminds me a bit of a former DJ friend’s comment – “Jazz is not a type of music. It’s a way of playing music.”
He opens with “Cars Trucks Buses,” written by keyboardist Page McConnell of Phish. The tune was written for the B3 and Monaco gives it his signature bluesy flavor, taking it in a lightly different direction. Then he abruptly changes pace with the bossa written by Lee Morgan, “Ceora,” before paying tribute to his idol Jimmy Smith on “Root Down.” You many have noticed there is no bass player aboard,so those bass lines come courtesy of Monaco’s left hand.
We first hear Monaco’s vocals on “Never Let Me Go.” It’s heartfelt as Monaco used to jam on this tune with the late Hargrove. Monaco follows with his up tempo arrangement of a usual gentle Italian love song, “Quando, Quando, Quando” where both he and Dicenzo exchange fiery solos. He sticks with the Italian genre on “Non Ti Scordare Di Me<” one that’s been sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli. Monaco provides a jazz interpretation while retaining the traditional elements by playing accordion and singing in Italian.
In yet another twist, Monaco renders the lone original “Awar Athar” with tinges of Middle East motifs. In fact, the term “awar athar” is a Turkish scale that he learned from his Turkish student. He then makes his B3 sound like a pedal steel guitar by cranking up the reverb on the familiar Floyd Cramer country hit, “Last Date.” By this point, the listener realizes that just about any kind of tune is fair game for the talented Monaco.
Given that he opened with a Phish tune, maybe it’s not so surprising to hear a Grateful Dead jam in this mix. Tony has a regular club gig in Columbus dubbed “Monaco Monday.” He attracts a young crowd who often shout out requests. So many of those have been Dead requests that he decided to include “Truckin’”. The drumming of McClung is especially impressive here and although the tone and style are different, one can’t help but to think back to those Garcia-Merle Saunders Keystone sessions.
Monaco then covers Jobim in “Triste” featuring some elegant guitar breaks from DiCenzo, who proves to be versatile throughout. For the close we get the familiar Leon Russell ballad, “A Song For You,” sung by Monaco playing piano for the first time on a recording. He begins unaccompanied but as the choruses evolve, you’ll hear the B3 chording and soloing as well as drums.
This could be as an electic set of tunes on an album that you’ll ever hear, but somehow it holds together coherently due to Monaco’s B3 style and his sensibilities for the tunes.
- Jim Hynes