Tony Monaco is one BAD organist. -- Jimmy Smith
In jazz as well as in life, the cliche has been proven true, over and over again: One begins by crawling, and only learns to walk, later. This is an especially appropriate saying -- painfully so at times, as it turns out -- when it comes to the experience of the Columbus, Ohio-based magician of the Hammond B-3 organ, Tony Monaco, whose second full-length album, Master Chops T, has just been released on Summit Records. Indeed, when you consider how arduous a road the presently 41-year-old Monaco has had to travel over the years, it is a miracle that he's still plying his chosen musical trade at all. Factor in the very obvious professionalism and spirited dedication to his art that you'll find throughout the present disc (as well as its predecessor, Burnin' Grooves , which dates from 2001), and you're likely to come away from listening to Master Chops T with a fresh glow of satisfied amazement.
Above and beyond the solid grooves that Monaco and his regular trio-mates, guitarist Derek DiCenzo and drummer Louis Tsamous, lay down across the record's 11 tracks, and more than the leader's stunningly executed runs or the powerful contributions of his hand-picked guests-- tenorist Donny McCaslin , trumpeter Kenny Rampton and trombonist Sarah Morrow -- it's the sheer quantum leap in overall quality and the sophisticated breadth of its pacing that characterizes Master Chops T. As fine an effort as Burnin' Grooves is, the current Tony Monaco Trio's offering is, to re-coin a phrase, miles ahead" of the group's previous work (which was, incidentally, produced by Joey DeFrancesco, himself a confirmed Tony Monaco fan.) Listen, for example, to the joyfully deep-seated swing of the horn-augmented arrangement of Woody Herman's sweetly jumping Apple Honey," or the rollicking party atmosphere of the only slightly tongue-in-cheek rave-up called Yah Bay BEE," a title that stems from the Austin Powers films, and you'll understand what all the noise is about. Then, on Gramps' Blues," listen as Monaco works out on the very same vintage Italian accordion he first learned to play music on in the 1960s, and dig the conviction that he brings to this ancient, and usually non-jazz, instrument. Finally, skip on over to the sprightly take of Frank Loesser's Luck Be A Lady," with Monaco taking the lead vocals in a decidedly Sinatra-like frame-of-voice, and you will be, once and for all, convinced of Tony Monaco's enormous and wide-ranging talents.
All of which makes the story of his life that much more amazing. Born into a musical family -- his father, Baldino Monaco, was an immigrant who played drums in the army during WWII, and as a weekend player once he'd begun a construction business after his discharge -- young Tony began finding his way around the accordion (actually, a so-called cordobox") his grandfather gave him when he was eight. Four years later, he discovered the soulful sound of Jimmy Smith, and he was quickly hooked. I figured out how to play [his] tunes," Monaco remembers, and I sent tapes to Jimmy of me playing his songs through the cordobox." Strangely, however, it was the sudden and devastating onset of a rare, polio-like condition known as [neuralgic Amyotrophy], when he was 15, that caused Tony to make the switch over to organ. Simply put, the attendant nerve damage to his shoulders made it impossible for him to raise his arms above his head, making it virtually impossible for the teenager to strap the heavy cordobox to his body.
Under the tutelage of a local Columbus organist named Jim Russell, Monaco learned and mastered the rudiments of the massive B-3, and began taking local gigs. Several years later, he got the opportunity to travel to Southern California for an appearance at The Chicken Shack, Smith's celebrated nightclub, and play, in-person, in front of his idol. Not long after this, Monaco's family opened a restaurant in Columbus, which afforded him a regular weekend gig, but little time for much more than that. Then, after fourteen years spent dividing his time between the restaurant and his dad's construction business, Tony made the decision to try his luck again as a full-time musician. But as fate would have it, at that very same moment, the neuralgic Amyotrophy reappeared, this time damaging his forearms, ankles and, even worse, his left vocal chord. A couple of operations ensued, but doctors told him he'd not be able to sing again, let alone play an organ. Once again, however, Tony Monaco was determined to beat the odds, and began the slow process of teaching himself to play organ again, as well as getting his voice to the point where he now believes he's singing better than ever.
It was shortly after he'd re-emerged on the local scene that he made the acquaintance of Joey DeFrancesco, when the younger organist came to town to play a club gig. The two hit it off immediately ("It was like we'd known each other for a long time, as soon as we met," says Monaco), and DeFrancesco was so impressed with Monaco's playing that he offered to produce the sessions that became Burnin' Grooves at his own home studio just outside Pho enix, AZ. The majority of the resulting tracks pair Monaco with DeFrancesco's rhythm section of Paul Bollenback on guitar and Byron Landham on drums, and DeFrancesco himself sits in, too, on piano.
As impressive as Burnin' Grooves is, though, Master Chops T is even better. This time around, Monaco and Summit Records' Darby Christensen have decided to let the standard" Tony Monaco Trio have the full musical say, and the sagacity of this decision is on display, for all the hear, on each of the album's cuts. Opening to the down-to-it kick of Monaco's own Acid Wash," and continuing on through the album's pair of funk-filled bonus" tracks -- a vocal version of Gamble & Huff's salacious Me And Mrs. Jones" and a lengthy spin around the chugging changes of Pick Up The Pieces" -- the Tony Monaco Trio and their friends prove, over and over again, why they are one of the brightest new" lights on today's jazz horizon. All of which goes to prove the veracity of yet another cliche, this one being that really good things are, indeed, worth waiting for.
* February 13 release features Monaco's trio, plus special guests Donny McCaslin, Kenny Rampton and Sarah Morrow
You can visit Tony Monaco, online, at www.B3monaco.com, and Summit Records can be found on the world-wide web at www.summitrecords.com. Summit Records is distributed in the United States and Canada by the Allegro Corporation.