Greg Lewis

Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black
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For someone who was initially mocked as a pianist while grudgingly praised for his compositions, the 30 years since Thelonious Monk’s death have seen numerous pianists struggling with playing his tunes properly because their interpretation is either too close to Monk’s or too far removed.

Greg Lewis negates the conundrum by sticking to his main instrument – the Hammond organ – on this tribute to Monk’s music. Additionally he adapts the nine Monk originals and four of his own compositions here to the parameters of the combo in which he regularly plays in New York clubs like the 55 Bar, Lennox Lounge and The Night of the Cookers. With hard-toned tenor saxophonist Reginald R. Woods, supplely swinging guitarist Ronald Jackson and the originality of drummer Nasheet Waits onboard, he brings Monk uptown where the High Priest of Bebop started his career. By exposing the funk underlay of Monk’s compositions, this original conception is a superior tribute to the man’s music, enhancing with more nuance than any number of piano-centred discs demonstrate.

A native New Yorker, who regularly plays organ at an AME church, Lewis’ other gigs range from backing singers such as blues artist Sweet Georgia Brown to membership in saxophonist Sam Newsome's Groove Project. Waits, with whom Lewis has played on-and-off for a quarter century, his best-known associate here, is a percussionist at home downtown as well as up, having worked with advanced improvisers such as bassist William Parker and saxophonists Peter Brötzmann.

Because of the elasticity of all the players plus the division of the combo into subsets like organ-drums, organ-guitar-drums, and organ-guitar-saxophone-drums, such Monk standards as “Bright Mississippi”, “Ugly Beauty” and “Crepuscule with Nellie” are given new life as funky riffs. The first tune, for instance, is broken up with boudoir tenor saxophone slurs and sighs from Woods following a serene head statement, then jagged pulsations from the organist and ringing single-note licks from the guitarist. The intermezzo which is “Crepuscule with Nellie” coats the melody with nearly opaque flutters and quivering glissandi from Lewis as Waits clumps out a backbeat hardened by further bass pedal work from the organist. Finally while there may be too much emphasis on the “beauty” and not enough on “ugly” on the third tune, the saxophonist’s intense slurps accelerate enough to harmonize with Lewis’ furry line pumping which regularizes the performance. On his own, as in the run through of “Thelonious”, Waits’ well-paced drags and stick motions maintains the rhythmic bottom, as Lewis’ head exposition widens as it vibrates, suggesting snatches of other tunes in his solo.

As a composer, Lewis is no Monk, but his originals such as “In the Black - My Nephew” and “Zion's Walk” hold their own in fast company. Unpretentious and continuously floating on double-keyboard murmurs and mushrooming tremolos, the first tune makes its way from a nearly overwrought “My Funny Valentine”-like vibrato to a soothing diminuendo, as Waits knits together press rolls and repetitive cymbal clatters while Woods’ reed work is as splintered as it is intense. Named for Lewis’ younger son, “Zion's Walk” is appropriately bouncy in the organist’s keyboard pops as Waits complements the line with positioned accents and a series of spectacular breaks.

Quirky in its own way, Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black may be the only Monk tribute sought out by funky organ combo fans; and the only organ session that excites Monk followers.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Little Rootie Tootie 2. In the Black-My Nephew 3. Humph 4. Skippy5. Ugly Beauty 6. Zion's Walk 7. GCP 8. Stuffy Turkey 9. Bright Mississippi 10. Thelonious 11. Why Not 12. Crepuscule with Nellie 13. Teo 14. 52nd Street Theme

Personnel: Reginald R. Woods (tenor saxophone); Greg “Organ Monk” Lewis (Hammond organ); Ronald Jackson (guitar) and Nasheet Waits (drums and cymbals)