Tony Monaco – Celebration (2012)

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The way I see it, there are two figures in the good ‘n’ greasy kind of organ soul-jazz today who tower above all others: Joey DeFrancesco and Tony Monaco. There’s been plenty of chatter about Joey here but too little about the other boss of the B3, Tony. With the recent release of a two-disc set celebrating his past and present, there’s no better starting point to get going on a discussion about why Monaco is at the top of the heap than with Celebration.

Disc 1 is where all the new material can be found, his first set of new studio songs since 2006’s East To West, and instead of merely producing the same solid fare, Monaco mixes things up with his personnel to give us a program that’s a little more varied and distinct than usual. Most of this is accomplished via using two separate backing bands: Tony Brown — who played alongside Monaco for Pat Martino’s recent, incredible live set Undeniable (2011) — and Posi-Tone Records sax master Ken Fowser. This band recorded nine tracks together. For the remaining four Disc One tracks, Monaco employed his native Ohio crew of Reggie Jackson (drums) and Derek DiCenzo (guitar).

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Hear Jackson and DiCenzo back up the B3’s newest sensation Kevin Coelho, in the Monaco-produced debut Funkengruven.]

Monaco handles more chores on most of the Brown/Fowser performance, since for the first time on his records, he’s playing without guitar accompaniment, and the little bit of breathing room created by the void changes the dynamics ever so marginally, but it’s enough to notice the difference. On a 3/4 song like “Daddy Oh,” the space in between Monaco and Brown makes Brown’s active trap work more noticeable. Brown kills it even more forcefully on “Bull Years.” Fowser, with his elongated, Gene Ammons-deep soulful notes makes an ideal counterpart and partner to Monaco; he pours out ardently romantic expressions by the bucketful on “Ninety-Five” and swings it just right for “I’ll Remember Jimmy.” Monaco, who never seems to run out of ideas, rattles off about ten or so good ones on “Jimmy,” and demonstrates a mastery of the “squabble” on “It’s Been So Nice To Be With You.” If you like to hear the power of a fully chorded B3 sound played with sensitive delicacy, “Unresolved” is your song.

Monaco’s unsung strength, though, is his songwriting. He knows how to vary the program enough to keep the record from bogging down in sameness. “Happy Sergio,” dedicated to Brazilian pop giant Sergio Mendes, is a samba, Monaco style. “You Rock My World,” dedicated to the guest pianist on this song Asako Itoh, is beguiling melody that’s a little mysterious and a little uplifting at once. Some organ players like to suggest gospel influences, but Monaco dives in had first into church music with “Just Give Thanks And Praise,” replete with gospel singer Mary McClendon and a choir of backup singers. But that’s not the only vocal track: Monaco does his best Tony Bennett impersonation on “Called Love,” and though he won’t make Bennett lose any sleep, Monaco is plenty competent as a singer and knows how to write music for vocalists, too. Like in his live performances, it serves as a refreshing change of pace, too.

The second disc, part of a limited edition version, is a retrospective of about a decade of Monaco’s recording history, a collection of Monaco in his bread-and-butter organ/guitar/drums base setting, with a sax and/or a trumpet added on a track here and there. Monaco has always been a traditionalist but with an aptitude for more modern textures, and the first cut “Acid Wash” (YouTube below) makes the case (as does “Indonesian Nights” from the new material). There are also a couple a tracks, “Katarina’s Prayer” and “Pasta Faggioli,” extracted from the notable 2003 summit meeting with DeFrancesco, New Generation: Paesanos on the New B3. One final, bonus track is the instrumental version of “Just Give Thanks And Praise,” but I think it only confirms that Monaco’s decision to “church up” the song further with vocals was the right one.

Celebration is not just a place to get started talking about Tony Monaco, it’s now *the* place to start on a Monaco record collection. Showing off all his best sides stylistically on disc 1 and his best sides historically on disc 2, this is the perfect intro to the exuberant, soul-stirring chicken shack grooves that few can do as well as Mr. Monaco.

Celebration went on sale April 10, via Monaco’s Chicken Coup label. Check out Tony Monaco’s website for more info.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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