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Music Review: Greg Lewis – Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black

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“I never had lessons on organ,” Greg Lewis is quoted in the liner notes to his new album Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black. “I just watched other organ players, and learned how the organ lends itself to making the the music different each time.” Well, for a guy who never took a lesson, Lewis manages his way around the instrument like someone with an advanced degree in organ studies. He does things with the Hammond C3 that would have made Jimmy Smith smile and Larry Young grin.

Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black is Lewis’ sequel to his critically acclaimed 2010 album Organ Monk, perhaps the first tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk by an organ-led trio. Lewis played the B3 on that disc and he was joined by Cindy Blackman on drums and Ronald Jackson on guitar. Jackson is back for the new album, but Nasheet Waits takes over on drums and the group expands to include Reginald R. Woods on the tenor sax. Together they take Monk’s music and make it new, which after all is what Lewis feels the organ can do, and even more important what jazz is all about. For good measure they add four Lewis originals, all of which fit in well with the album’s concept.

“Little Rootie Tootie,” a song Monk wrote for his two-year-old son, opens the album with some wailing and grinding. It gives each member of the quartet a chance to do some sweet solo work. This is followed by Lewis’ own “In the Black – My Nephew,” a tune that begins so quietly you can barely hear it for almost a full minute until Woods’ sax begins to sing and slowly builds to a bluesy crescendo before coming down again at the end. It is one of the best tracks on the album. The next piece, “Humph,” changes the pace and shows just how fast Lewis can get around on the organ. Here he plays with Woods and Waits, as he does again on “Skippy.” Both are lesser known Monk compositions.

Of the 14 tracks on the album, “Ugly Beauty” stands apart. Some of the organ work wouldn’t have been out of place in Phantom of the Opera, and Woods provides some complementary lyricism with his own solos. They work wonderfully together again on a funky version of the classic “Stuffy Turkey.” “Bright Mississippi” features the whole quartet with Woods and Jackson standing out. It is the longest track on the album. “Thelonious” is another vehicle for Lewis and Waits after their earlier duet on Lewis’s own “Zion Walk.” Waits, who does some impressive work throughout the album, really shows his stuff walking to Zion.

After “Why Not,” another Lewis original, the album closed with three more Monk tunes: “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Teo” and “52nd Street Theme.” The first was written for the composer’s wife and Lewis plays the ballad with passion. The latter is the classic written by Monk but never recorded by him. It has some swinging guitar and features some more great work from Waits.

Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black, like its predecessor, shows off the possibilities in Monk’s music just awaiting the innovative talent to come along and suss it out. Greg Lewis is showing the way. The best news is that this is only number two (uwo, it turns out, signifies the number two in North African Nubian dialect) in a planned trilogy. If you liked number one, and you like number two, you’ve got number three to look forward to.

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About Jack Goodstein