As the leader and cofounder of NRBQ, Terry Adams is widely regarded as a unique and progressive voice in rock and roll. The keyboardist’s fearless, playful approach has long pushed the boundaries of rock, pop, blues and jazz, often blurring the lines between them altogether.
This Thursday, April 5, at the Flynn Space, Adams will pay homage to another artist — and personal hero — with similar tendencies toward progressive music musings, the legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. In advance of that show, Seven Days caught up with Adams by phone from his home in western Massachussetts.
SEVEN DAYS: When did you first come into contact with Monk’s music?
TERRY ADAMS: I was living in Louisville, Ky., at the time, and I was about 14. I was just drawn to buy one of his records one day. I don’t even really know why. I had never heard that music. But as soon as heard it, I knew it was for me. It just spoke to my spirit. I got pretty lucky. For my 15th birthday my dad took me to the [Mid-Ohio Valley Blues, Jazz, & Folk Music Society] festival to see him live. I love all music, but I knew he had something special to say.
SD: That must have been a great experience, to see him live at that age.
TA: It was. I remember going up to the gate. There was a musician standing there and I said, “Hey, tell Monk to come over here.” And the guy said, “That would be very difficult.” [Laughs] And, of course, it would have been. But I just wanted to meet him. And I saw him every year after that. And pretty soon, I got to know him.
His music has always been important to me. It’s involved in NRBQ’s music in some ways. And now, finally coming up at the FlynnSpace, it’s the first opportunity I’ve ever had to devote a night to it and show people how his music can be played in different ways, through different instrumentation and different interpretations that I wouldn’t have been able to do years ago because I was too busy. So it’s perfect timing for me.
SD: You actually knew him?
TA: Yeah. Just by being around a lot. Do you know who the Baroness is?
SD: The Jazz Baroness?
TA: The Jazz Baroness [Pannonica de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild]. She was a pretty famous patron of jazz. And she hung around with Monk a lot. I got to know her a little bit, and they put me on the permanent guest list at the Village Vanguard. So I walked in anytime I wanted.
I had some pretty nice encounters with the guy. One night I walked in and the place was really crowded. So I walked over and asked him if I could sit sort of behind the piano and under it, because there were no seats left. But I wanted to hear the sound, directly from the piano, without coming through the microphone. And he agreed.
SD: That must have meant a lot to you then.
TA: Monk’s music meant a lot to me. It tells you to be yourself, to persevere. It’s about longevity and sticking with your beliefs. It sends out that message, you know? It’s uncompromising.
SD: NRBQ is pretty famous for messing around in different genres and taking a playful approach to other people’s music, too. When you’re doing something like this, interpreting an artist who is so revered, is there a hesitancy to push too far?
TA: Well, you have to be true to it. But you also have to be able to be yourself. You have to stay inside the songs from beginning to end, even through improvising. It’s gotta stay in there. But it swings, and it rocks, and it has a sense of humor. It’s got the stuff that we like.
SD: Without giving too much away, how are you reinterpreting his music for this show?
TA: Basically with different instrumentation and rhythmic feels. We’re using instrumentation you wouldn’t usually associate with that music. The last thing I would do would be to get some really good jazz musicians and go in there and just play it. It just wouldn’t mean anything in the end, for me.
SD: Last question. You’ve done some pretty incredible things over the course of your career, but being on “The Simpsons” had to be the coolest, right?
TA: It was! It was a great surprise to actually be animated. We also played live on film. I don’t know how many other people have been on the show both animated and as themselves. We were really honored.
Terry Adams plays the FlynnSpace in Burlington this Thursday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m. $22/25.
NRBQ play the Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction on Saturday, April 7, at 8 p.m. $25.