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Tony Monaco: Master Chops T

R.J. DeLuke By

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I think that people got over-stimulated with all this digital stuff. And I don't think there's anything more fascinating than the sound of a Hammond B3.
Listen to Tony Monaco play the celebrated Hammond B3 organ. He swings like mad, solos like hell, and locks into soulful, vibrant grooves. The instrument has had a great resurgence in recent years. Listen to either of his two CDs and you can see that Monaco, while unheralded, is one of those few who can really make it talk. The real deal, who’s impressed even acknowledged master Joey DeFrancesco, among others. Monaco is a monster. Master Chops T his new CD on Summit records, released in February, is aptly named.

It’s hard enough to be living in Columbus, Ohio, or any other smaller city, and have your talent get noticed enough to make some noise in the big-time music world, which all to often is not particularly related to talent. Listen again to his music. Realize that you’re listening to a man who, after being struck by a nerve disease — neuralgic amyotrophy — had to train himself to play all over again, using different muscles to make his hands work the keyboard. Once his fingers nimbly caressed the keys effortlessly. It was an arduous road back. It’s still hard for him to walk too far without a cane.

Listen to his crooning on “Luck Be a Lady.” Won’t make you forget Tony Bennett, but he’s got a nice swinging feel and a warm style. Now appreciate that at the age of 35 his voice, in a second attack of the disease, stopped working. In mid-speech. It took an operation to get his speaking voice back and it was a grueling task to re-learning how to sing. His vocal chords wouldn’t hit notes like he was used to, like you and I can (for better or worse) without thinking about it. But he worked his way back.

Tony Monaco has it. More than just the “it” that allows him to play music on a par with other greats on his instrument. He’s got life’s “it.” Determination. Concentration. Courage. If Tony Monaco never played another note, he’s heroic. He won’t tell you that, though. That’s another charming thing about him.

The disease, he says matter-of-factly “gave me a lot of gratitude, that’s what it did for me, is bring a lot of gratitude and a lot of thanks to God. Cause I’ve seen first hand —twice — once when I was 16 and then 35, that everything that you have can be stripped away in the matter of a few hours. Sometimes in the matter of a moment.”

But he was blessed with special musical talent before trouble struck and he’s still got it. Though his grit and his fortitude he’s bringing it out even more and his talent demands to be heard. His first CD released last September, Burnin’ Grooves is also a stalwart session — produced by DeFrancesco — and following the unveiling of the second, Monaco hopes to be out touring more and doing what he loves with the “screamin' Hammond B3.”

He spent a lot of his years working in family businesses, raising his own children, looking after his father in his last years, all the while staying in Columbus. He played music all that time, but not always jazz, his real love, and not on the big-time circuit. But he has no regrets. Monaco is upbeat, straightforward and good-natured. And focused.

How focused? As a youngster — an accordion player — he felt the pull and feel of Jimmy Smith’s music so much that he worked and worked until he could imitate him on the hand-held instrument. So much so he even impressed Smith himself. After his disease forced him to switch to organ (his arms couldn’t hold the accordion up any longer) he mastered it to the extent that he blew away DeFrancesco with his playing, which led him to the two Summit CDs. Chuck Mangione was also knocked out by the unknown organ master from Columbus and helped advance Monaco along his musical journey.

“I really love organ. I live and breathe it,” he said, and he hopes to share that love on a much broader stage. If the CDs are any indication, we’re only seeing the beginning of the resilient Senor Monaco.

“I try to treat people right and I try to always examine my motives for everything I do,” he says. “As long as I have a clean heart and a clean slate, whatever is going to happen is going to happen. There’s a reason why I met Joey [DeFrancesco] two years ago and not 12 years ago. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I had to be there for my dad when he died. Maybe I had to be there for my kids when they got on the school bus. Who knows why things happen the way they do, you know?”

You can go crazy asking why. Sometimes it can be counter productive. Suffice to say Monaco is here, and he’s stepping out into the major jazz scene. He should be welcomed with open arms. He’s modest about it, but his story is an inspiration. Let him tell it.

All About Jazz (AAJ): How long have you been playing?

Monaco: I’m 42. I started playing accordion when I was 8, so, about 34 years.

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