Greg Lewis / Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black (2012)
It takes abundant courage and uncommon musical vision to radically reinterpret the works of such an idiosyncratic genius as pianist Thelonious Monk. Fortunately, organist Greg Lewis possesses both as is evident on the second volume of his Organ Monk trilogy, Uwo In The Black.
As he did on Organ Monk (Self Produced, 2010), Lewis adds a few of his own tunes to the Monk repertoire, seamlessly blending into the overall thematic structure. The organist's "In the BlackMy Nephew" is a requiem of sorts, with his instrument's expansive and full sound creating a sacred sanctuary, while riding on the rhythmic scaffold built by Nasheet Waits' crashing cymbals and thumping drums. Reginald B. Woods' mournful tenor and Ronald Shannon Jackson's melancholic guitar fill this virtual space with reserved emotion.
Monk's "Ugly Beauty" is given a similar treatment as Jackson's eastern-sounding saxophone and Lewis' capacious and spiritual Hammond C3 create an uplifting and satisfying duet ballad.
An autodidact on the organ, and long known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Monk canon, Lewis trained as a pianist with Jaki Byard and Gil Coggins, and a piano-like approach to his instrument is apparent here on the bop-ish "Humph," with its arpeggios, and "Why Not," featuring his angular and edgy solos.
In addition to organist Jimmy Smith, pianist Fats Waller and funk keyboardist Sly Stone, Lewis was influenced by several church organists that he heard growing up in Queens, New York. His switch to Hammond C3, with its modesty panels, is not the only way he pays homage to them, but also in the gospel-like treatment of some of the album's pieces. On "Crepuscule with Nellie," he embellishes the melody ecclesiastically, while Waits' stimulating thumps and thrums underscore these harmonic ornamentations.
Impossible to overlook, Waits is not the type of drummer who is satisfied with merely keeping time. He brings a primal force, coupled with polyrhythmic sophistication, to create a signature style. On "Thelonious," his jagged exchange with Lewis constructs a delightfully unpredictable improvisation.
Ever the versatile guitarist, Jackson brings a bluesy, laidback groove to the trio take of "CGP" and a mercurial finesse to the flowing notes of "Bright Mississippi." His coolness contrasts well with Woods' brassy and hot tenor on the opening "Little Rootie Tootie."
Influenced by saxophonists Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon's big brash sound, Woods brings more of a facile but asymmetric phrasing to the project, à la Charlie Rouse (well-known for his lengthy collaboration with Monk). This is best demonstrated on his soulful Extemporization, as he keeps up with Lewis' breathtaking acrobatics on the intricate and swinging "Teo."
A tribute of the best kind, Lewis' second installment re-imagines an icon's work without slavishly following it note-for-note. It nevertheless leaves the great Thelonious Monk's musical spirit intact for a new generation to enjoy.
Track Listing: Little Rootie Tootie; In The Black – My Nephew; Humph; Skippy; Ugly Beauty; Zion's Walk; GCP; Stuffy Turkey; Bright Mississippi; Thelonious; Why Not; Crepuscule With Nellie; Teo; 52nd Street Theme.
Personnel: Greg Lewis: Hammond C-3 organ; Ron Jackson: guitar; Reginald R. Woods: tenor saxophone; Nasheet Waits: drums.
Record Label: Self Produced