I first met guitarist, composer, and educator Amanda Monaco when she played in my hometown early in the new Millenium as a member of The Lascivious Biddies, a quartet that combined witty lyrics, strong vocals, and sharp musicianship. Turned out that Ms. Monaco has grown up in nearby Wallingford CT and had been schoolmates with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and pianist Noah Baerman. After leaving the Biddies in the mid-2000s, she has led several ensembles, released four albums as a leader, and built upon her teaching career.
“Glitter” (Posi-Tone Records) is her fifth release and finds her leading an ensemble that features Lauren Sevian (baritone saxophone), Gary Versace (organ), and Matt Wilson (drums). Just looking at the lineup and several of the song titles (“Gremlin From the Kremlin“, “Mimosa Blues“, “The Mean Reds“), one gets the feeling the listener is in for a good time.
And this truly is a good time. Opening with the swinging “Dry Clean Only“, this band digs in and lets loose (yes, that’s possible). Keeping the solos short, the song has an urgency that’s hard to resist (plus, who swings harder than Matt Wilson?) Ms. Sevian is a versatile player whose solos really dance (as she does on “Mimosa Blues” and Tommy Flanagan’s “Freight Trane“). Versace’s roller-rink organ introduces “Gremlin…” (check out the martial drums as well) – the Eastern European-style melody and chord changes open up to playful solos sounding like a Lieber & Stoller tune from the late 1950s mixed with Micky Katz. “The Mean Reds” also could have come from the ’50s, the organ splashes and “rocking” guitar riffs being pushed along by Wilson’s splashy cymbals.
There is a serious side to this fun session. “Theme For Ernie“, a Fred Lacey composition recorded by John Coltrane in his Prestige Records, is a lovely ballad (amazing how Wilson can play so softly and still be integral to the music) with lovely solos from baritone, guitar, and organ (although Versace does dance through his chorus).
Best advice about “Glitter” is to enjoy the ride – no doubt that these four musicians are having a blast. This is the best and “loosest” I have heard Amanda Monaco play. That’s not a slam against her earlier work. This program works so well because of the temperament and talent of the ensemble as well as how the composer understands how to let her music “breathe.” Play it loud and relax. Just maybe the world is not coming to an end.
The multi-talented Mae West once said that “personality is the glitter that sends your little gleam across the footlights and the orchestra pit into that big black space where the audience is.” West, of course, thrived in a different era, worked in different formats, and was more than likely addressing another artistic discipline entirely with that specific statement. But those remarks still apply here. In fact, everything in there—minus the orchestra pit and footlights—is really dead-on.
Guitarist Amando Monaco’s Glitter is the kind of recording that hits the sweet spot for lovers of straight ahead jazz who appreciate a good amount of artistic character and playfulness in their music. These songs swing, simmer, and smile, projecting warmth and joy while showcasing Monaco’s no-nonsense playing. If anybody out there still believes musicians can’t be serious and have fun at the same time, Glitter may very well cure them of that belief.
Monaco’s bandmates for this project—baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, organist Gary Versace, and drummer Matt Wilson—are a truly simpatico set, equally comfortable paving a zany and crooked path or walking a straight line. There’s nothing this crew isn’t good at. Looking for a ballad to bring a tear to the eye? Check out this quartet’s take on “Theme For Ernie,” with Sevian delivering some of the most heart-warming bari work you’re likely to hear today. Want something a little more left-of-center instead? Give “Mimosa Blues” and/or “Gremlin From The Kremlin” a try. Versace’s puckish wit is painted all over both numbers. Craving something exciting or a pure groove tune instead? This foursome has you covered with the up swing of “Dry Clean Only” and the boogaloo-buoyed “The Mean Reds.” Monaco offers something for almost everybody with this playlist.
There’s a lot to appreciate in these nine tracks—Wilson’s sterling support and repartee, Versace’s wide-ranging vocabulary, and Sevian’s flexibility and near-telepathic connection to the leader all certainly register—but Monaco’s guitar work is at the very top of the list. Her clean-toned approach, directness, and concision—qualities that may seem antithetical to the concept of establishing one’s own voice—actually help her to stand out, both in this mix and in the grand scheme of the jazz guitar world. It’s downright refreshing to hear somebody really focusing on putting over melody and delivering a satisfying solo chorus or two of fully comprehensible ideas. All that glitters may not be gold, but this album and its creator certainly are.
Dan Bilawsky – All About Jazz