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Tony Monaco: Master Chops T

R.J. DeLuke By

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AAJ: In the 90s there seemed to be resurgence — there has always been Jimmy Smith out there and some others — but there seems to be a real resurgence in that instrument. Synthesizers are so complicated and they can imitate different sounds. They became popular. But the old B3 seems to be hanging in there. Maybe Joey DeFrancesco had something to do with it, after Miles picked him up.

Monaco: Absolutely.

AAJ: But it surprises me a little that that instrument, with all the other electronics available, still has popularity and a sound.

Monaco: Actually more popular today than it has been in the last couple decades previous. My thought is, the majority of my audience that comes to see me when I play are youngsters, in their early 20s to 30s. 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, because it’s generated by tone wheels. And I don’t think there’s anything that sounds the same as a Leslie actually spinning. I know they make different effects units that are supposed to sound like a Leslie, but I have not found one yet that sounds like a Leslie in a live situation when it’s just cranking, and distorting and throwing that sound all around.

I think the youth are just really into the retro fact that here’s this thing that sounds so darn good. And if it’s played right, the B3 is nasty, man.

AAJ: On the new CD, you’re much more of a composer. Is that something you played with for a while? Do you write much?

Monaco: Burnin’ Grooves is more of a straight ahead, in your face, jazz organ trio CD. Master Chops T is wider. What I wanted to do with Master Chops T is not just present the organ as a lead instrument, but also as a total instrument, because the organ has so many applications possible. So what I tried to do with Master Chops T is write a couple of tunes to highlight it in a different way. In other words, give the saxophone, give the trumpet, give the steel drum, give the trombone space to blow. And then use the organ not only as a comp instrument but actually as a lead instrument behind them, embellishing and moving them where I want it to. In other words, I’m throwing the tone colors at them with different draw bar settings and stuff so they can take their solos to another level. That was my thought process.

I wrote a tune “Ya Bay BEE” which, to me, sounds like something that should be on an Austin Powers movie. It’s kind of got that sidewinder, 60s-ish, trumpet solo, really cool kind of thing happening with it. “Acid Wash,” if you take a really good set of earphones and put them on so that you are totally into the sound, there are a lot of things happening in the background, in terms of new digital effects, that really open that up. “Acid Wash” is my version of Jimi Hendrix. There’s a lot of things happening with some digital effects in there that, unless you’re really listening close, you don’t pick them up. But once you start picking them up, you’ll hear so much more in that tune than you hear on your first glance. It’s a blast.

AAJ: Did you do a lot of writing before this CD?

Monaco: I’ve done writing in and out. I’d written some vocal tunes back in the 70s and 80s when I used to record some things with the family band. Writing is one of those things where some days you just wake up and you got it in your head when you’re not trying. They just come.

AAJ: Also on the CD there’s some crooning. I know most Italians like to sing.

Monaco: Sure, man. Losing my vocal chords seven years ago when that disease came back, they told me I would never sing again. And they gave me an operation, taking fat out of my stomach and putting it into my vocal chord. He said “you’ll talk again, but you’ll probably never sing. It took me six months after that to learn how to sing. I was trying to hit notes with two vocal chords with only one working. So I had to re-learn everything all over again. Left-hand bass lines and then also my singing. I just love to sing. It’s just something I love to do. Especially Frank Sinatra tunes.

AAJ: You got the disease again at the age of 35. Is that when it affected your vocal chords?

Monaco: Yes. That’s when it really affected me the worst. It got one of the nerves on my left vocal chord. I clear my throat a lot because it doesn’t work properly. It also affected a lot of nerves in my left forearm, which totally destroyed my ability to play left hand. So I to learn all over again how to use my left hand by substituting different muscles.

It’s not like tendonitis. When you get tendonitis it just hurts, but everything is still working. The body is amazing. What happened with me is when the nerve gets damaged, and in some cases it actually stops working, you’ve gotta train your mind, because your mind still thinks it works. When you go to pick up a glass it’s all automatic. You just do it, because everything’s working like it’s supposed to. When you get sick with this kind of a disease and it destroys the nerve, you think about picking up the glass, but your hand doesn’t do it. So what you have to do is retrain your mind by repetitive motion to learn a new way to pick up the glass. And that’s kind of what happened with me with my left-hand bass. I had to start with a metronome at a very slow speed and just try to play in time, very slow. Slowly, over about six or seven months, I was back at it 100 percent. But my positions, or the muscles I was using, are different ones. I figured out a way, I guess.

AAJ: It must have taken a lot of concentration.

Monaco: Well I am type-A. [laughter]. So I’m determined sometimes.

AAJ: That’s a lot to work through.

Monaco: It 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.

My voice went instantaneous. I was talking and it was gone. That nerve stopped functioning and my left vocal chord just flailed off to the side, and there was only air coming out and I couldn’t speak anymore for six months.

AAJ: That must have been scary. But you sound good on the CD, so you’ve come a long way. You own a construction company and you’ve had other businesses, so you don’t rely solely on gigs. That must help. A lot of people say in the last few years or so gigs are hard to find, especially if you’re not one of the big names.

Monaco: I’ve been very blessed to run my parents restaurant and now the construction business that my dad started back in 1950. My brother and I now own that business and are running that. I’m blessed with the fact that I have a normal income coming in and that I can play jazz and still get my kids what they deserve. And I feel terrible for the poor guys that are trying to make a living, because we’re still getting paid for gigs today that at the same rate as 20 years ago. I used to be able to go out and play a club in the early 80s, just a local three-hour gig, nothing special. You would go out and play those gigs for $100 cash in the 80s. Well the money’s not that much better now. I feel very bad for the guy who relies solely on playing gigs. My heart goes out to them.

AAJ: Do you give any thought to going out on a tour outside of Columbus and giving music more of a push?

Monaco: Absolutely. That’s what I want to do. I just came back from playing some gigs in San Francisco and LA. And they were a blast. I had standing room capacity on most of them, Once again, a bunch of youngsters really into this organ thing. I finally managed to hook up with an agent. That’s one of the toughest things to do because the money is so poor. Agents aren’t going to spend all that time trying to book you, because the rate of return is not high enough. So I have an agent. I’ve got some festivals beginning. I’ve got dates in Illinois, some in Michigan, some in Minneapolis. It’s starting to open up. Fortunately, with my brother running the business, I’m at a time in my life where my kids are getting older and I can take the risk and go out and take some gigs and have some fun. I give thanks to God every day. I’m just grateful to be playing.

AAJ: Great. Is there anybody you’d like to play with out there that you haven’t? Obviously, you’ve played with Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco. Anybody else on your wish list?

Monaco: Well, I love Dr. Lonnie Smith. I think he’s a phenomenal organ player. I love so many of these guys. I love to play with anybody, really. There’s so many great musicians out there. I just played with a monster last night that’s unknown. His name is Gene Walker. He’s a saxophonist. I had so much fun with the guy. He’s been on the road with the Beatles, he’s played with George Benson. This guy lives in Columbus and he plays like you wouldn’t believe. I love to play with anybody that’s good.

AAJ: You’d like to do more recording in the future?

Monaco: Absolutely. But I do have one long-term ultimate goal that I would like to do. This is down the road. But at some point and time in my life, I would love to have my own recording studio and actually produce youngsters and try to help them get out there. That’s my real goal. To take some enthusiastic kid, who could have been me when I was 16 years old, and recognize his talent and try to help the guy. Cause it’s so hard.

AAJ: Yeah. There’s a lot of people around that that have the talent, but nobody notices them.

Monaco: There’s not an industry big enough to afford to suck them in.
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