Tony Monaco, a master of the Hammond B-3 organ, seems to be mellowing. The fiery, greasy, and bluesy playing that has defined him over two decades of recordings is largely absent from his new album. So are his own compositions; he brings only one to the table on The Definition of Insanity and instead covers a surprising assortment of tunes with a trio featuring guitarist Derek DiCenzo and drummer Tony McClung.
Monaco is mostly laid-back on this outing, showing off dazzling runs only occasionally—most impressively on an inspired, shuffling take on Jimmy Smith’s classic “Root Down,” on which he shoves the drawbars in and out and clicks the rotary speaker on and off to change up the texture. His cover of Phish’s “Cars Trucks Buses” is a great choice and a fun treatment, not unlike the groove-jazz version that the New Mastersounds have been playing for years. So are his funkified version of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” and his cooled-down take on Lee Morgan’s bossa nova tune “Ceora,” the latter of which spotlights both his sophisticated technique and his soulful style. In fact, three of the disc’s 11 songs are bossas, another clue that Monaco is mellowing. He pulls off some neat tricks too: making the Hammond sound like a pedal steel guitar on the country tune “Last Date” and employing Turkish scales on his original, the Middle Eastern-flavored “Awar Athar.”
Inexplicably, however, Monaco sings on three songs. When you’re a superb instrumentalist but just an okay singer, why would you do that? He almost channels Billy Joel (playing piano, too) on Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” but that’s the best of the lot. His just-shy-of-mediocre vocals on “Never Let Me Go” unfortunately overshadow the guest appearance by his wife Asako Monaco, who gives a lovely performance on piano.