Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2016

In 1963, long before Terry Adams was internationally known for his celebrated band NRBQ, he was a young teen regular at a record store in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and a little frustrated.

The pricey Ray Charles “premium album” he’d just bought included some songs he already had on a different record. The woman behind the counter allowed Adams to exchange it for anything else in the $5.98 bin, so he flipped through and found only one interesting prospect, the “greatest hits” of someone unknown to him: Thelonious Monk. But Monk played piano and he was on the trusted Riverside label, so Adams took a chance. He walked out of the store with a new universe under his arm.

Here in the future, more than 50 years after the life-changing day when Adams first lowered the needle onto that record and discovered one of his biggest musical inspirations, Adams has finally released his first-ever full album of Monk songs, “Talk Thelonious,” out tomorrow as a CD (on his own label Clang!) or double LP (on Euclid Records).

The majority of the 12-song album was recorded live at FlynnSpace in Burlington, VT back in 2012, a concert that event producer (and longtime fan) Don Sheldon lobbied hard to make happen, though Adams took a while to agree. He knew if he said yes, he “wouldn’t sleep for 6 months.” “Any time I take on a project, nothing else exists until I’m done with it,” Adams said in an interview with Clubland last week. “I knew I wasn’t going to just show up and get through the songs. I was going to put all I had into something that’s alive.” “Talk Thelonious” is diverse, as all Adams projects are, and swirling with good energy. “Hornin’ In” has that full-band-with-saxes NRBQ rollicking swing thing, “Straight, No Chaser” is recast as a bouncy country foxtrot with pedal steel, “Ask Me Now” is a lovely piano/organ duet with ‘Q guy Scott Ligon on the Hammond, who then switches to super-fun percussion to make “Think of One” a groovy Latin/New Orleans workout. Whatever form the songs take, Adams stays true to Monk’s playful and soulful spirit.

Adams’ love of color is everywhere: the reedy pipe organ solo that opens the album, quiets your mind and melts your heart (“Reflections”), the recorder-like sound of the ocarina on “That Old Man,” the chromatic harmonica and pedal steel (both played by the great Jim Hoke) on one of the album’s most haunting highlights, “Monk’s Mood,” which made me tear up the first time I heard it on headphones.

The album’s grand finale is its one non-live track, “Ruby, My Dear.” It was crafted in the studio, with Adams pulling out all the stops for an arrangement he’d had in his head for a decade. For the first time in his long career, he hired a full string section (with arranging help from Keith Spring), and created a constantly blooming bouquet of French horns, flutes, saxes, chromatic harmonica, accordion and more. It gives Monk’s ballad a breezy, romantic sound that’s part “Pet Sounds,” part Henry Mancini and part Percy Faith’s version of “Theme from ‘A Summer Place.’” Adams had a last-minute panic just before the finished recordings left his hands to be mastered — he’d been listening to Monk’s original “Ruby, My Dear” again and realized he’d missed one note. Monk’s harmonies are so unique, mysterious and complex, Adams said that “after all those years, after a billion listens, I heard a note at the end of the bridge that I had never played in there. It really bugged me.” With the help of engineer Norm Demoura, he figured out a way to sneak it in.

“Two years from now, I’m going to hear one more note that should have been in there,” Adams said, laughing. “That’s the way it is with [Monk’s] music. It’s like the cosmos. You think you know everything, then they invent the Hubble telescope, and, ‘Oh, there’s more over there.’ That’s the way it is when I’m hearing his harmonies.” Adams remembers well that day in 1963 when he first took Monk’s “Greatest Hits” album out of its sleeve. “As soon as I put it on, I instantly knew that this music was for me,” he said.

Whatever Adams had been learning about music from records and elsewhere (the self-taught musician hadn’t yet picked up an instrument), Monk’s sound was from another dimension: “Suddenly I knew nothing.” “I started picking up on something I needed, some kind of vibrations,” Adams said. “I wanted to learn from this guy. I wanted to know what Thelonious had to tell me about life. Teachers are where you find them.” “Off Minor” was a song that particularly mesmerized him. He couldn’t figure out the song’s bridge section, so Adams wrote a letter to Monk, asking what the enigmatic chords were. “He didn’t answer me,” Adams said. But Monk’s music kept speaking to him.

Later that year, Adams’ father, who traveled a lot, attempted to get close to his son by suggesting a birthday gift of going to see a baseball game, but Adams — no fan of organized sports, but wild about Monk — had a better idea. He asked his dad to buy tickets to all three days of the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival, only 90 miles away in Cincinnati.

“He picked up the phone and ordered those tickets. I couldn’t believe it,” Adams said. “My dad didn’t understand jazz and all that was going on, the beer and the cups — he was a deacon at the baptist church — everything about that experience was so alien for him.” But Adams was right at home — he saw Roland Kirk play for the first time, got Milt Jackson’s autograph — and then, on the third day, Monk took his place at the piano. “As soon as he came out, I just left the seat entirely and went in front of the stage. There was nothing in the world but music, for me, and him. He [didn’t] stop and say ‘Thank you very much’ or talk to the was just cookin’ until it was over and he just walked off. I was stunned by it.” “He’s a master musical mathematician,” Adams said. “I always think when I hear Bach play, ‘This has been worked out, this agrees with physics. This guy has all the equations.’ I feel like [Monk] is the next guy to take it somewhere else, with some kind of bebop zen sort of thing, to what other mathematic equations are possible. When [Monk] does anything — a standard, “Body and Soul” or something — there’s a lot of deep thinking that’s gone into the structures of those chords. There’s a lot to learn from that.” “It’s not that Monk needs me for anything, his music is fine where it is, and wherever it goes,” Adams said. “But the music is worthy of being sung by an average person. It doesn’t have to belong to a certain jazz fan, or piano players, or whatever. ‘Ruby My Dear’ can be ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles...there’s no reason it can’t be.” “Talk Thelonious” isn’t just Adams’ loving, long-in-the-works tribute to Monk’s music, it’s also his cosmic thank you for the years of kindness shown to him by Monk and his patron, Pannonica de Koenigswarter — known as the “Jazz Baroness” — who took care of Monk for the last 28 years of his life (he died from a stroke in 1982). She saw Adams at countless Monk concerts in New York City in the late-‘60s, took note of his dedication and befriended him, introducing him to Monk and including him in their lives until Monk’s passing.

Adams had made the move to upstate New York in 1967, living about 100 miles north of the city, and he’d trek down to the Village Vanguard as often as possible to see Monk play.

“I’d drive there by myself and stay as long as I could. They had that minimum drink thing and I was totally broke, and the waitresses probably hated me, I’d make a ginger ale last five hours,” he said.

Adams was such a regular presence at Monk’s shows, The Baroness noticed, and once she learned of Adams’ long solo drives and deep respect for Monk, she told him, “From now on, you’re my guest.” She began inviting him back to the kitchen and asking, “Want to talk to Thelonious?” Adams has many great stories from those dressing room visits with Monk, who didn’t waste words, usually responding with one hard-hitting sentence. One of the first things Adams remembers telling his idol was, “Every time I hear you, I tap my feet. I can’t help from moving.” “That’s a hell of a compliment,” Monk replied.

On another backstage occasion, during the time that saxophonist Pat Patrick (Adams’ friend from Sun Ra’s Arkestra) was a member of Monk’s group, Monk walked in and Patrick said, “Hey, what’s happening.” Monk, in a uniquely good mood, replied, “Everything’s happening, all the time.” Then he took off his coat and added with a jab of his finger, “Every googolplexth of a second.” “I didn’t even know what that was, but i didn’t forget the word,” Adams said.

And another memorable backstage exchange happened on the night that Adams asked Monk if he’d play one of his favorites, the obscure and melodically complex “Gallop’s Gallop.” Monk called over his saxophonist at the time, Paul Jeffries, and asked him if he could play the tune. “I don’t know,” Jeffries shrugged.

Monk looked at Adams and asked bluntly, “How’s it go?” Adams, now nervously on the spot, nevertheless sang the entire far-out melody to the two musicians, including the tag at the end.

Monk now turned to Jeffries, saying with a wordless stare, “What’s YOUR problem? This kid knows it.” “By this time he’s starting to like me, because he used me to teach his saxophonist a lesson,” Adams said. “He started teasing with me sometimes. Before he’d hit the stage, he’d come over to where I was sitting and say, ‘You know what’s wrong with the world today?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ and he’d look and say, ‘Teenagers are crazy.’ Then he’d go and start playing.” Monk got ill enough in the 1970s to stop performing, and during those last years of his life, he lived with the Baroness in Weehawken, NJ, alone in his own room, often in bed, the door shut. Adams would call her once a week to ask how Monk was doing, and hear reports like, “Well, today, he went for a walk, and his nutritionist came.” Adams thought Monk might be inspired if he had a new record in the stores, and knew that the Columbia archives contained a number of worthy performances that had never been released. The Baroness liked the idea and gave her okay — even supplying the title for the collection, “Always Know” — and Adams went to the record company and pitched his idea.

“I said, ‘I know about stuff that you don’t know about’ and got the job. I picked all the songs, did mixes and wrote the liner notes,” Adams said. The acclaimed collection (now out of print) would be released in 1979.

“He was really in his last days, so [the Baroness] invited me over to her place to play the album for him before it came out,” he remembered. By that point Monk barely left his bedroom, staying behind closed doors, but the Baroness assured Adams that Monk would hear the music through the wall. She put the unearthed recordings on and went to go see how Monk was doing.

“She came back in and said, ‘He’s smiling. I haven’t seen him smile in a long time. That’s good, Terry.’” When the record was over, she asked Monk if he’d like to see Adams. “She said ‘Nobody gets in that room. He won’t talk to Charlie Rouse, he won’t talk to Orrin Keepnews, nobody gets in there, [but] he’s invited you.’” Adams went to see his inspirational teacher for the last time. “It was kind of far out to see my idol lying down instead of on the high stage. I had this opportunity to shake his hand and tell him that the music was in my heart.” Before Adams headed home, he asked the Baroness if he could play one of his own compositions for Monk, and with her okay, Adams played his beautiful [and Monk-ish] song “Yes, Yes, Yes” (from NRBQ’s classic “At Yankee Stadium” LP).

Adams didn’t want to leave until he heard what Monk thought of the tune.

“You don’t want to ask that,” she replied, explaining how Monk could sometimes be on the mean side.

“I want to know what he thinks, no matter if it’s mean or what,” Adams said.

So the Baroness went and asked Monk, coming back with his short but sweet reply: “He’s okay!” Back in the present day, Adams tried to sum up the personal importance of the “Talk Thelonious” record. “As I started doing this project, I realized that I was supposed to do it. If nothing else, it was between me and [Monk] and me and [the Baroness]. I felt that something had to come out of all those years of being a fan and listening. They had been so kind to me,” Adams said, gently repeating those last words, in deep appreciation: “They had been so kind.”


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