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Fiery Blues by Tony Monaco

When a distinct "sound" is happening, right under the noses of the listeners of a community, it takes someone from outside the hometown to appreciate it. The people who hear the music that connects with them night after night immerse themselves in it, rather than considering it in broader cultural or commercial contexts. When Count Basie was performing on W9XBY in Kansas City, it took John Hammond to realize the Basie band’s potential and to move it to New York for broader recognition, establishing the cachet for "Kansas City swing." Likewise, now that its heyday is past, jazz organ player Tony Monaco looks back to the greasy and soulful B-3 organ sound that emanated from, of all places, Columbus Ohio. Like most other jazz organists, Monaco took his primary inspiration from Jimmy Smith, but he absorbed the styles of all of the others as well, including Jimmy McGriff, Johnny "Hammond" Smith, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Jack McDuff. It wasn’t until Monaco started reminiscing with Pete Fallico about hearing all of the B-3 work in Columbus that the realization of a "Columbus sound" performed in working class nightclubs like the 502 Club on Leonard Avenue and the Carolyn Club on Marion Avenue (where Nancy Wilson first performed) existed. I remember hearing Hank Marr and Rusty Bryant at the Thunderbird on Trabue Road and in outdoor events around the city. Marr chose to stay in Columbus after a stint as Nipsy Russell’s musical director and then to retire from teaching at Ohio State University. However, Don Patterson, another Columbus native, switched from piano to organ under Harr’s tutelage and then moved to the East Coast to be the leading exponent of the sound from the central Ohio stop of the organ circuit of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Now, after four CD’s on the Summit Records label that have brought him increasing awareness among enthusiasts of the B-3 sound (like Pete Fallico), Tony Monaco has returned to his roots, those of the jazz organ masters from his home town and the blue-collar blues that they played, to find material for his latest album.

Monaco has chosen local musicians to record with him, including tenor saxophonist Gene Walker, who knew and performed with generations of jazz musicians from Columbus, including Marr and Patterson, as well as Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The most interesting addition, though, is blues singer Willie Pooch, who tears up some of the songs like "Stormy Monday" and "Everyday I Have The Blues."

And that brings me to my favorite track on the recording, "Crosscut Saw," written in blues form but combining boogaloo, 1950’s-like calypso and an uproarious shout chorus. Not only does Pooch, in setting up the concept for the song, inject the wry humor with the lyrics ("Look out!"), but also the song’s structure gives all of the musicians an opportunity to have fun with the song Derek DiCenzo with blues twang on guitar, Walker with his by turns beseeching and declarative sax work and Monaco with his variegated choruses, from diminished long tones to eighth-note scamper. And to top it all off, after the sustained false ending of "Crosscut Saw," the entire group blasts back in full force for successive shuffle repeats before fadeout.

And that’s just one track. Fiery Blues contains much more.

Monaco’s tributes to the Columbus B-3 men include Don Patterson’s "Goin’ To A Meetin’" and "Mellow Soul" and Hank Marr’s "Greasy Spoon." All three of those songs are descriptive of the type of organ work that Monaco honors, from the implied gospel roots, to the irresistible groove to the type of clubs where the music gained its adherents, even though all three base their melodies and feel on the 12-bar blues. Moreover, the involvement of the three guitarists on the CD enhances the feel of the music, actually recalling the blues work that drove home the hard-luck-and-troubles theme that made it appealing to the listeners. Plus, Monaco invited guitarist Tom Carroll and drummer Jim Rupp to play "Greasy Spoon," a musical reminiscence of their work with Marr when he was alive.

Included in Monaco’s definition of fiery blues is Miles Davis’ "All Blues," which indeed does smolder and flare at times, though the controlled burn teases the listener with implications of an explosion that could occur at any time.... but doesn’t, the tension a constant throughout the track. Horace Silver’s "The Preacher," the most extroverted of the songs, no doubt is consistent with Silver’s personality. Like the final piece of a concert, "The Preacher" gives all of the musicians a chance to make a final statement before the CD is over.

But then Monaco includes an encore, "Takin’ My Time Blues" with guitarist Robert Kraut and drummer Louis Tsamous from the "Intimately Live At The 501," perhaps in tribute to the recently defunct club, where Monaco often played to an appreciative audience, not to mention a jubilant owner. Just as the 502 Club lives on from some of Hank Marr’s recordings inspired by his work there, so does now the 501 Jazz Bar live on because Monaco had the prescience to record there a year before it went out of business.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Tony Monaco
  • CD Title: Fiery Blues
  • Genre: Soul / Funk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Summit Records
  • Tracks: Goin’ To A Meetin’, Everyday I Have The Blues*, Greasy Spoon, Mellow Soul, Ashleen, Crosscut Saw*, The Hooker, Stormy Monday*, All Blues, The Preacher, Takin’ My Time Blues
  • Musicians: Tony Monaco (Hammond organ); Willie Pooch (vocals)*; Gene Walker (tenor saxophone); Robert Kraut, Derek DiCenzo, Tom Carroll (guitar); Louis Tsamous, Jim Rupp (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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