They had only two nights of rehearsal, and one shot at making it work. But Talk Thelonious: NRBQ+ plays Terry Adams arrangements of Thelonious Monk Songs, the new album of Thelonious Monk compositions from Terry Adams, was really “a lifetime in the making” according to Adams, co-founder and keyboardist for the legendary New Rhythm & Blues Quartet, which goes by NRBQ and is equally adept at rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country and pop.
“I started being a Monk fan at 14,” says Louisville native Adams, now 67, who eventually developed a remarkable relationship with the complex jazz pianist/composer.
“The first Monk song I heard then was ‘Off Minor’ by his septet. I had just begun to figure out some things about the music I was hearing, but after hearing Monk, suddenly I knew nothing. It was a great mystery that sounded wonderful.”
He actually wrote Monk a letter requesting the chords to the song’s bridge–which went unanswered. But in due time Adams would provide similar answers to Monk himself.
Adams and his combo appeared regularly on 1960s Louisville music TV show High Varieties, which featured local teen talent from the “Kentuckiana” metropolitan areas of Kentucky and Indiana.
“I started to play Monk songs with my trio, and got a letter from the staff saying to go back to my original style, that I wasn’t ready for it,” recalls Adams. “I wrote back and said I wouldn’t go backwards, so they more or less kicked me off the show! But in retrospect I probably wasn’t ready to play Monk—if one is ever ready to play his music. But that’s how long I’ve been working on it.”
Never a pro sports fan, Adams rejected his dad’s offer to take him to see the Cincinnati Reds for his 15th birthday, but talked him into taking him to see Monk there at the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival instead.
“He bought tickets for all three nights, and I got to see Milt Jackson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk—you name it. Everyone was there. And my favorite band that Monk had happened to be in ’63! After that, I saw him every chance I could, driving to Chicago, everywhere. When I got to New York in ’67 I started making it to the Village Vanguard to see him, and Central Park and everywhere else he played. I felt like he was going to be my ultimate teacher.”
Adams caught so many Monk performances over the next few years that Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the famous jazz patroness and close friend of Monk, invited him to come as her guest whenever he wanted.
“I was 18 or 19, and went as often as possible and had a lot of conversations with him,” notes Adams. “Ultimately, as I was doing this project, I realized it was something I was supposed to do—not asked to do—in this lifetime.”
Talk Thelonious, which comes out Friday as a two-LP set on Euclid Records and a CD on the Clang! label, documents NRBQ’s performance of Monk compositions recorded in 2012 at the Flynn Space in Burlington, Vt.
“Don Sheldon, the concert producer [and album co-producer with Adams], was after me for a couple years to do an all-Monk night,” says Adams. “I said no because I thought I’d devote too much to it and not think of anything else for two years—because anything I do, I don’t do anything else in my mind for awhile. But I finally gave in and started thinking about getting the guys to learn those songs—and they learned them on the phone!”
With little rehearsal time for the one-time-only show, Adams and the rest of NRBQ (Scott Ligon, electric guitar, Hammond organ and percussion; Pete Donnelly, electric bass; Conrad Choucroun, drums) did their homework—as did frequent NRBQ guests Jim Hoke (alto saxophone, flute, chromatic harmonica and pedal steel guitar), Klem Klimek (tenor and alto saxophone) and Pete Toigo (acoustic bass).
“Jim Hoke played a big part in the performance of my arrangement of ‘Monk’s Mood,'” says Adams. “I asked him if he could play melody on the chromatic and the bridge on pedal steel, and no one else could do that with Monk on the same song. I don’t know anyone who could even play both those instruments!”
As for his NRBQ band mates, he says that they discussed some things, “but they’re such great musicians and were eager to learn [Monk music] and were on the edge of their seats. They can master anything and this music is so special that one note can change the whole flavor.”
As for Adams’ arrangements, besides the imaginative instrumentation on “Monk’s Mood,” he brought a pipe organ to “Reflections” (as well as piano, acoustic bass and drum trio). “Hornin’ In” features two alto saxes, while “That Old Man” employs an ocarina.
Monk’s standard “Straight, No Chaser” also enjoys pedal steel and a country electric guitar solo in addition to stride piano. Adams also includes “Gallop’s Gallop” and tells a wonderful story in the Talk Thelonious jacket notes about how he asked Monk if he would play it at a Village Vanguard gig in 1971: Monk, after asking his sax player if he could play it and getting back a doubtful look, asked Adams how it went, with Adams then bravely—and victoriously—vocalizing the entire tune.
Adams ends the album with one studio track, “Ruby, My Dear.”
“I decided to step outside of the concert and give a full production, with four violins and two French horns and full orchestration—which I’ve never done before,” he says. “I don’t have the skills to come up with string arrangements, so I asked Keith Spring of the [frequent NRBQ backing] Whole Wheat Horns to give me the strings and French horn arrangement within the context of my own set-up—and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. But it’s something I’ve been working on since I was a teenager.”
Indeed, Adams has always performed Monk tunes in NRBQ, and with the band contributed to Hal Willner’s 1984 Monk tribute album That’s the Way I Feel Now. But he hardly regards Talk Thelonious as either a “live album” per se or a one-shot.
“It’s a recording of my arrangements of this music, and that means everything to me,” he says. “I just think it wasn’t until now that I was ready to do it. Before, it was like I was too inside it or close to it or something. I had to go through it instead of over or around it.”
He observes how his Monk music manuscripts have changed over the years as he’s written out and erased and updated entries “all over the paper.”
“It’s a long process of learning the music,” he notes, comparing it with cosmology: “The more you look, the more there is. There’s no finally ‘getting there’—there’s always the next telescope that comes along and you find more there than you thought there was before.”
But Adams nonetheless came to understand that he was finally ready to tackle Monk’s work.
“He and The Baroness were so kind to me and gave me so much, and I realized in retrospect how much I learned, and that I wasn’t ready until this time to record this music and give something back,” he says. “It comes back to that I’m supposed to do this—to bring the music to some place where it’s alive and breathing. Not classic jazz, necessarily, but coming form me.”
“I once said to him, ‘Your music always gets me tapping my feet and moving,’ and he said, ‘That’s a hell of a compliment.'”
A compliment that The Baroness returned after Monk died.
“Two years after she sent me a package and a letter saying I was the only–in capitals and underlined three times–one to receive one of his hats,” Adams reveals. “I put it in a safe place and never talked about it, but it was the kind of thing that during this project reflected great things that have happened to me that I never truly celebrated.”
He reflects back on his childhood, “just sitting on the floor listening to the radio.”
“Music brought the rest of the world that I couldn’t see in Louisville to me,” he says. “Schools, church and my parents had nothing to do with what I heard coming out of the speakers, like The Coasters and Jimmy Reed. I saw other kinds of culture and people and vibrations and Monk was sort of the ultimate: As soon as I started thinking I knew something about the world, I found something about New York City coming out of this music. Here I was stuck in the Midwest, and it suited me because it was about being yourself and sticking with who you are. I was already getting kicked around in school for not being like everyone else, and he was making his own music and probably took a lot of crap for it–but it was beautiful and positive, and I thought I needed to hear as much of it as possible and be near him as much as possible.”
Adams writes in the jacket notes to Talk Thelonious that now, “after almost 50 years listening, studying, and being spiritually open to this music, I had the pleasure of arranging the way it felt in my soul.”
“I think that Monk’s music, like no other, has certain messages for you,” he concludes. “He expects you to behave with dignity. He reminds you to not be talking any bulls**t behind somebody’s back. And to stay strong, stick with your beliefs without compromise, and above all, be yourself.”
Subscribe to my atombash.com pages and jimbessman.com website and follow me on Twitter @JimBessman!