Jazz CD Reviews

Greg Lewis – Organ Monk: American Standard

A Monk of a different make and model.

Published on March 4, 2014

Greg Lewis – Organ Monk: American Standard

Greg Lewis – Organ Monk: American Standard [TrackList follows] – self 884501944403, 74:44 [1/7/14] ****:

(Greg “Organ Monk” Lewis – Hammond B-3 organ; Ron Jackson – guitar; Riley Mullins – trumpet; Reggie Woods – tenor saxophone; Jeremy “Bean” Clemons – drums)

Hammond B-3 player Greg Lewis (AKA Organ Monk) magnifies his admiration for Thelonious Monk on Organ Monk: American Standard, the third self-released outing for Lewis’ alter ego. Lewis began his Monk obsession on Organ Monk (2010), which had 15 adaptations of Monk compositions. On his second, self-issued album, Uwo in the Black (2012), Lewis added some of his original work to the Monk interpretations and expanded from a trio to a quartet. Now, Lewis restructures once again. On the 74-minute, 10-tune American Standard, he’s enlarged to a quintet, and reshapes the set list to familiar nuggets from the Great American Songbook: the twist is they have all been performed by Thelonious Monk.

Lewis’ current group comprises guitarist Ron Jackson (Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Don Braden and more), who has been with Lewis since 2010; the newest member, trumpeter Riley Mullins (Wynton Marsalis, Natalie Cole, Roy Hargrove and others); tenor saxophonist Reggie Woods (who was featured on Uwo in the Black); and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons, who has been a longtime Lewis musical associate, although this is the first Organ Monk studio date he has been on. Together, the fivesome pump up the energy level on soulful, sometimes bop-inclined translations of material made famous by artists like Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and Louis Armstrong. American Standard opens strongly with George Gershwin’s “Liza,” which Monk recorded with Art Blakey and Oscar Pettiford in 1956 and once more in 1964 with his own quartet. This one sprints like a racehorse, and pulses with vim and vigor, never decelerating: Woods’ sax is on fire, but before the smoke can clear, Mullins escalates the crescendo on his soaring trumpet. One of Monk’s favorites was another Gershwin hit, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which Monk presented on his famed 1947 Blue Note session, but also at an after-hours gig in 1941 and on his final record in 1971. Woods showcases his spirited appeal and proves he’s quite a jazz bon viveur, i.e., he knows how to “play it well.” Lewis solos during the cut’s second half and slants into his chords, putting some Monk spins into the organ.

The band could have slid into triteness on two timeworn hits, but circumvents any pitfalls. Monk knew “Tea for Two” inside and out, and re-harmonized it in 1952 with a bebop-embroidered melody. That’s the fruitful terrain Lewis goes to as well in a trio arrangement: Lewis and Clemons do an extended duet intro which locks the groove and lays a funky foundation, and then Jackson enters with glossed guitar which adds some applicable soul. “Just a Gigolo” has certain, unavoidable connotations due to prominent versions by Louis Prima and David Lee Roth. Lewis sidesteps schmaltz, on another pared-down threesome rendering: his pronounced chords use the memorable theme to craft an intimate, small club ambience, while Clemons builds a swinging rhythm and Jackson offers a slightly nostalgic discernment on his six strings. Drama and thematic storytelling are at the vanguard on the two longest pieces. Sinatra’s chart-topping single, “Everything Happens to Me” (also found on the 1965 Solo Monk LP) bubbles slowly but surely, with nimbly bittersweet chords from Woods; a smoldering undertow from Lewis and Clemons; and Lewis takes the spotlight on the tune’s backend, with lingering lines which evoke feelings of perseverance and lamentation. The CD’s conclusion, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” commences with a focal motif which rises from shadowy undercurrents: here, improvisational intuition comes to the fore and the quintet morphs “Deep Blue Sea” into a dissonant direction, nearer in mood to something by Miles Davis (circa the early 1970s) than Monk (who taped the number in 1967). Jackson constructs beeping guitar noises; Riley utilizes a trumpet mute to further establish the Davis connection; Lewis layers subterranean, bass-heavy left-hand notes and jarring organ flourishes; and later, Riley and Woods double their horns as the weighty track closes out.

TrackList: Liza; Lulu’s Back in Town; Nice Work If You Can Get It; Dinah; I Should Care; Tea for Two; Everything Happens to Me; Just a Gigolo; Don’t Blame Me; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

—Doug Simpson




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