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Celebration-- Tony Monaco

After touring (and recording) with Pat Martino for two years, organist Tony Monaco has released his first studio CD since East to West in 2006. Celebration includes a second bonus disc comprised of selections from Monaco's previous CDs for Summit Records and its subsidiary Chicken Coup. The compilation includes three tunes associated with Jimmy Smith that show how Monaco has taken the Smith influence and transformed it into his own individual style, namely Smith's "Slow Down Sagg," "Blues for T," and "Backward Shack," the latter two loosely based on Smith's "Blues for J" and "Back to the Chicken Shack." "Slow Down Sagg," by the way, is a scintillating 12-minute live jam that is a must hear. Monaco has come a long way from being mentored by Smith himself and subbing at age 16 for Hank Marr and Dr. Lonnie Smith at clubs around his native Columbus, Ohio. Recovering from debilitating physical ailments both early and later in his life, Monaco has gone on to become one of the top organ players in jazz. Celebration's new material features Monaco in two core trios, for nine tracks with drummer Jason Brown (who was also in the group with Martino), and New York-based saxophonist Ken Fowser, and for four tracks with his regular Columbus trio mates Derek DiCenzo on guitar and Reggie Jackson on drums.

"Daddy Oh" is distinguished by Brown's slick drumming, Fowser's slinky tenor, and Monaco's bluesy lines atop his funky bass patterns. "Aglio e Olio," which Monaco first recorded years ago with Joey DeFrancesco, is a convoluted theme reminiscent of Smith. Fowser burns bright in a surging solo with Monaco's propulsive support. The organist's nimble, ingratiating solo is, as is often the case, ignited by his unbeatable bass pedal manipulations. Exciting exchanges by Monaco and Fowser with Brown are the icing on this confection. Monaco plays the upbeat, soothing theme of "Indonesian Nights" (written while on a flight to the Java Jazz Festival) with the in-the-groove backing of guitarist DiCenzo and drummer Jackson. DiCenzo's dancing, infectious solo is deftly driven by Monaco's comping and Jackson's solid back beat. Monaco's solo is all over the map, as honey-toned legato phrasing is interspersed with wailing riffs and more staccato passages.

Inspired by Sergio Mendes, "Happy Sergio" has Mendes' appealing accessibility in its swaying Latin melody. Fowser caresses the changes in his forthright improv. Monaco's comping for him is superlative and his own solo is delightfully communicative. The out chorus presents more complex Monaco formulations in satisfying contrast. "Unresolved" is a sensuous Monaco ballad, with rich streaming organ harmonies accompanied only by Brown's crisp brush and cymbal accents. "You Rock My World, Asako" was written for guest pianist Asako Itoh. She enhances this soulful tune, soloing with flair after Monaco's joyful theme treatment. It's then interesting to hear a pianist comping for an organ solo, although Monaco's exuberance soon overwhelms her playing. DICenzo's guitar is heard faintly in the mix as well at times in this unusual arrangement. A second much shorter version of this composition concludes Disc One, but is oddly titled "To Be Continued." It simply takes a catchy riff from its content and adds a subtle hip hop flavoring--a fun ride while it lasts.

"Just Give Thanks and Praise" is highlighted by Ohio gospel singer Mary McLendon in the lead with the Columbus Choir Singers in call-and-response. Fowser's statement swirls spiritedly in a hip manner remindful of Paul Gonsalves. Monaco solos emphatically with vocal assistance raising the intensity level even higher--and once again his bass pedal technique astounds. A second "bonus track" instrumental look at "Just Give Thanks and Praise" appears for some reason at the end of the Disc Two compilation, and has the same gospel fervor, this time with Fowser's tenor completing the give-and-take. He and Monaco each sermonize robustly in their improvisations. "Bull Years" finds Monaco's limber extended lines introducing the riff-laden theme, after which Fowser percolates engagingly. Monaco's solo sizzles thanks in part to Brown's aggressive encouragement and his trades with the organist.

Fowser's opening arpeggios segue into his reading of the pleasingly relaxed theme of "Ninety Five." His warmly melodic solo keeps the atmosphere mellow as Monaco delicately intones behind him. The leader's unhurried ruminations are equally enticing. Monaco sounds like Wild Bill Davis on "It's Been So Nice to Be With You," a tasteful ballad. Fowser's tender solo is followed by a more up-tempo insistent one by Monaco, who reverts to his true sound before returning to vibrato-heavy Davis territory for the reprise. "I'll Remember Jimmy" is a revisit of Monaco's salute to Smith initially recorded on the East to West album. It cooks no end, with Monaco and Fowser's undulating unison theme treatment setting up intricate solos by both musicians. Monaco is particularly Smith-like here, fittingly so. Brown has a relentlessly tuneful solo spot to wrap up this winner.

As he does when performing in clubs, Monaco also gives us a glimpse of his talent as a vocalist. On his own "Called Love," he intentionally conveys Tony Bennett's distinctive timbre and phrasing. Monaco wrote it in the fashion of a standard love song, and it's well-crafted both in melody and lyric. His sensitive solo, as well as Jackson's incisive drumming, seal the deal.

After digging the new stuff, turn to Disc Two for a varied "best of" with the likes of DeFrancesco, Bruce Foreman, and Donny McCaslin joining Monaco for a frolicking good time.

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Scott Albin