Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Steve Smith, Tony Monaco, Vinny Valentino - Groove: Blue (2015)

We owe the existence of this precious jewel of an album to a chance encounter in Indonesia's capital Jakarta in March 2011. Drummer Steve Smith and guitarist Vinny Valentino decided to go for a nightcap after playing the Java Jazz Festival with their band Vital Information. As they approached the lounge bar, they heard the sound of a wild swinging electric organ. Wondering “who the hell was banging those black and white keys” they walked in and there they saw Tony Monaco, one of the “unsung heroes” of the Hammond B3. Few people knew much about him apart from that he had been promoted by organ legend Jimmy Smith and had spent two years touring with jazz guitarist Pat Martino. Smith and Valentino made their way through the crowd and asked if they could join in. They proceeded to spent the rest of the night jamming out together later joined by festival greats like George Benson and Roy Hargrove.

Five months later, fate once again intervened. Smith and Valentino had been booked for a workshop in Cleveland Ohio. Tony Monaco lived close by in Columbus, a modest 230 km drive away. A spontaneous phone call resulted in a car journey and resulted in the three of them playing in Monaco’s small home studio. Steve borrowed a small jazz drum kit from a friend of Tony’s as his own didn’t fit in the car. Valentino plugged his guitar into the only available amplifier and they were off. They worked so well together, they decided there and then to record an album. One and a half days later the recording was in the box!

To get a sense of the style of this album, think of the classic Blue Note organ trios of the 60s. These true musos inject effortlessly this 50 year old sound into their own compositions, adding a few specially arranged jazz standards along the way such as the legendary 1958 Miles Davis classic version of "On Green Dolphin Street" which Smith’s zestful drumming gives a distinct Latin feeling; Ray Nobles "Cherokee" is gently modernised with a funky groove; Nat King Cole’s immortal "It's Only A Paper Moon" from the Broadway musical "The Great Magoo" retains a timeless swing but with a walking pedal bass from the Hammond organ; they wind down with a gentle version of "That's All", an unforgettable ballad from the Great American Songbook.

Although Smith, Monaco and Valentino had virtually no time for rehearsals, they harmonise on "Groove: Blue" as if they’d known each other all their lives. This is what happens with topflight musicians, they manage to blend perfectly together in every musical situation. They know every trick in the book as a glance at their biographies show. Let's start with Steve Elliott Smith. Born in Massachusetts in 1954 he was artist aged nine and taking drum lessons from big band veteran Bill Flanagan. As a teenager he developed his skills at school and in garage bands. After high school he trained at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Later Smith toured with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and was drummer on the last album of the famous Focus formation. While on tour with rock musician Ronnie Montrose in 1978, Smith was asked to join the band Journey. He stayed with the internationally acclaimed Arena rockers for seven years, playing on successful albums like "Escape" (1981) and "Frontiers" (1983) which enjoyed a number of Top 40 hits. To make sure his rock stardom didn’t overshadow his passion for jazz, Smith founded a side project ‘Vital Information’, which became his focus of attention after leaving Journey.

Vital Information went on to release the universally acclaimed albums "Orion", "Fiafiaga", "Easier Done Than Said "and" Where We Come From ". Jazz journalist Bill Milkowski wrote: "There is no more flexible and disciplined 'band of killer players' in today's jazz scene.". Although leading the Fusion Jazz line-up took most of his time, Smith still made time for studio sessions and / or live performances with Mariah Carey, Zucchero, Bryan Adams, Larry Coryell, Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Victor Wooten and Hiromi. Through such extensive experiences Steve Smith has mastered many if not all styles of todays music. From marching drums festive parades that fascinated him in his childhood, through swing and bop to pop, power rock, fusion jazz and the rhythms of South Indian Konnakol School of Americans he’s done it all. Not surprisingly "Modern Drummer" magazine voted him the best all-round drummer five years running and added him to the list of the 25 best drummers of all time in 2001.

Vinny Valentino has worked with jazz greats such as John Patitucci, Bob Moses and Steve Gadd. In 1993, he debuted a solo album "The Distance Between Two Lines". His solo back catalogue now stands at twelve recordings. In 2006, he joined Steve Smith’s Vital Information and quickly established himself as a driving creative force. His idol George Benson described him as a "young genius with brilliant tone and fresh ideas".

Tony Monaco always dreamt of making his career as a musician but despite playing jazz clubs as a young man his wish remained unfulfilled. To feed his family he had to play safe and earned his living in the hometown of Columbus, Ohio as a restaurateur and food broker. Only after his friend and fellow organist Joey DeFrancesco made his debut album "Burnin Grooves" in 2000 were his talents recognised by a wider audience. Monaco decided to finally take the plunge. He has long been celebrated in insider circles but continued to be largely unknown. After eight solo albums and collaborations with Mel Lewis, Adam Nussbaum, Jon Faddis, Harvey Mason and Russell Malone, his latest work "Groove: Blue" has finally confirmed his status as an "unsung hero of the Hammond B3".

01. The Brush Off (6:20)
02. On Green Dolphin Street (4:37)
03. Cherokee (5:42)
04. It's Only A Paper Moon (6:00)
05. I Remember Jimmy (4:35)
06. Indonesian Nights (5:31)
07. Bugalulu (5:09)
08. Slingshot Blues (5:29)
09. That's All (5:35)

Tony Monaco: Organ
Vinny Valentino: Guitar
Steve Smith: Drums