Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Tony Monaco's The Definition of Insanity

Yesterday I hinted that I had already noticed a trend in contemporary jazz, but I didn't say what that was. I'll go ahead with the reveal--it's tango. I'm looking at a lot of new CD releases right now, and it's surprising how many of them are tango or at least full of Argentine influences. A lot of this music is downright beautiful, but I'm not quite done yet with last year's trend of organ trios. You know, Hammond B-3 organs, one of my favorite instruments in jazz, the big jazz trend of 2018. It seems like it's been a while since I've reviewed an organ trio, but Tony Monaco has come to my rescue with one of the most enjoyable releases in some time.

Organ trios are unusual for a couple of reasons. First, there's no bassist--the lower notes are handled by the B-3's pedals. There was a time when I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to play the B-3 since it seemed so easy. But throw in the pedals and I'll immediately crash and burn. It's not easy at all. Second, organ trios can use the Hammond in two distinct ways--as the soloist, or as the supplier of endless textures and moods, sort of like a rhythm guitarist in a rock band. Monaco has taken the road in between--he takes equal turns with drummer Tony McClung and guitarist Derek DiCenzo so that this trio is something more than a well-oiled machine--it is a singular entity in constant motion.

This ensemble, in other words, is tight. It's driving music, full of momentum and groove. Monaco has recorded ten albums up to this point, mostly of his original compositions. On The Definition of Sanity he has chosen covers, but the trio approaches them in a sly way that lead up to a moment of surprise halfway into the song--oh, this is "Truckin'" from The Dead? Or Floyd Kramer's "Last Date"? Or Leon Russell's "A Song For You"? Or "Cars Trucks Buses" from Phish? It's sort of a cliche to say that Monaco goes out of his way to make each one of these familiar songs "his," but he does. It's only once in a while, such as "Never Let Me Go," where the trio plays it straight--with Tony singing and his wife Asako Monaco taking a lush, romantic turn at the piano.

Monaco is in complete control on this album--he arranges, produces, mixes and masters, and does a great job of it. He even adds playing the piano and the accordion to his portfolio. "He's particularly proud of the high production values," the press kit explains. "He recorded it at a very high resolution to create its crystal clear sound." That's something you might find in the liner notes of an audiophile production, not a mainstream contemporary jazz release, but yes--the sound quality is magnificent. It's easy to keep it simple and pure with small ensembles, but it can be tricky to capture all those sounds a B-3 makes in addition to the mere notes. That's why I love the B-3, quite frankly, because it's such a human instrument. So far, Monaco is one of the most gifted humans I've heard when it comes to playing this wonderful organ.

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