Monaco has studied with artists including Kenny Burrell, Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid and Harold Mabern, and her roots in mainstream/bebop are clear; but she manages to infuse a slight harmonic edge to her music that distinguishes it from the plethora of guitarists out there trying to mine the same riches. "Quickie," for example, with its slightly jagged melody and a rhythmic approach that places an insistent bass line over a more relaxed set of changes, is but one example of some of the dichotomies found on the recording. The deceptive "Ring-a-Ling" takes a light bossa feel and, by playing liberally with time signatures, keeps things slightly off-balance throughout. "Gaza Strip Mall," has a Middle Eastern flavour that is all the more attractive for Monaco’s lean approach, where the space between notes is as important as those played. "Speedy Green" is an exercise in abstraction, showing that Monaco and the quartet are as comfortable exploring free territory as they are more straight-ahead material.
Drummer Jeff Davis drives the set with a slap-happy approach that is equal parts Joey Baron and Elvin Jones. Bassist Fraser Hollins works well with Davis, at home providing a solid groove or, at times, a more insistent pulse that drives Monaco and tenor saxophonist Jason Gillenwater to greater heights.
One of the highlights of the set is "Present," a tender ballad introduced by Monaco in a solo setting. She demonstrates a rich harmonic sensibility and, again, a spare approach that makes every note count. Gillenwater delivers a lyrical solo that alternates cascading notes with longer tones that, like Monaco, display an interest in the space between.
Monaco’s writing and playing are deceptive. On the surface they can be interpreted as mainstream with a penchant for the lyrical, owing much to the Jim Hall school of minimalism. But underneath it all is a more contemporary angularity; even tracks like the poignant closer, "Huunuu," contain a richness that belies a peaceful and easy-going surface.
Amanda Monaco 4 is a fine début album from a guitarist and writer who, with a spartan approach that is concerned deeply with melody, and an empathic quartet that works well in achieving her musical goals, deserves a broader audience; no doubt we’ll be hearing more from her in the future.