The first time I heard NRBQ live they moved from Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9” to Sonny Rollins’ “Valse Hot” to Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” in one stretch. Can’t recall the program otherwise, but I believe that before the last beer was quaffed we also heard Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and “Bye-Ya” – there was plenty of jazz in that particular show, and the band’s choices skewed heavily towards the High Priest of Bebop.
As Q fans know, pianist Terry Adams has been a Monk man from the get-go. In the liner notes of the new Talk Thelonious he recalls a 1971 encounter in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard, where he asked the maestro to play the somewhat obscure “Gallop’s Gallop,” and when queried about the melody, the hippie pianist was able to sing the complex theme note for note. Adams also curated the sage Monk 1979 compilation, Always Know. NRBQ has long peppered their sets with Monk tunes (don’t miss their frolic through “Little Rootie Tootie” on Hal Willner’s That’s the Way I Feel Now), bringing a profound sense of fun to an icon that helped shape their anything-goes aesthetic. Now Adams has dropped an all-Monk album, culled from a 2012 Vermont concert. His dedication to his hero is partially heard in the way he stresses singularity. No one sounded like Monk, and no one has made Monk tracks sound the way Adams does here. From pipe organ to pedal steel, he brings a few oddities to the table.
Though known for the raucous way he leads NRBQ through a charge of high-flying nuggets on the stage, Adams has long had a way with ballads, and this 12-song program is generous with Monk’s somber side. “Ask Me Now” is a stark affair for two keyboards, with Scott Ligon’s Hammond organ eerily stating the theme while the pianist dances around him. Adams has picked up part of his style from the fractured phrases his hero turned into bop poetry, and on “Monk’s Mood” he flashes through a lyrical cluster of ideas while setting the stage for harmonica and steel guitar contributions. As each has its say, the jazz classic’s forlorn vibe momentarily takes on the air of prairie lament. And it’s a ghostly pipe organ that defines “Reflections,” all churchy reverence and willful idiosyncrasy. In the unusual instrument category, saxophonist Jim Hoke even plays ocarina on “That Old Man” (remember, it was Monk who had a few people scratching their heads when he tried out a celeste on “Pannonica” in ’57.)
But don’t worry rockers, there are plenty of spots where the exclamation points fly. A hornless “Humph” jumps out of the gate and swings hard, giving Ligon room to work out a bouncy solo that has as much to do with Jimmy Bryant as it does with Monk. It’s rhythm that marks the band’s spin on “Think of One,” with the addictive groove veering somewhere close to a kaleidoscopic boogaloo. Here, Hoke’s cagey alto connects with Klem Klimek’s mighty tenor, and like their twists and turns on “Hornin’ In,” there’s nothing shy about their approach.
Perhaps the band comes closest to echoing Monk’s own approach on the knotty “Gallop’s Gallop.” Its thrills are in the melody’s wound-tight string of backflips, as well as the lithe approach bassist Pete Toigo and drummer Conrad Choucroun take to give Adams and Hoke plenty of elbow room. The leader’s solo is animated and concise – he definitely knows the rules of pop. Indeed, Adams sounds sage throughout the entire album. The decades he’s spent absorbing Monk have paid off. Insight and adoration form a seductive blend in this charming repertory romp.