Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black-- Greg Lewis

Greg Lewis has everything a jazz organist needs, from spirit and soul to imagination and technique, and a longtime obsession with the music of Thelonious Monk. The latter, of course, is not a requirement, but it helps if you are in the process of compiling a trilogy of CDs focusing on Monk's compositions. Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black (uwo means "two" in the Nubian dialect) is the second CD in the projected series, following the 2010 Organ Monk, and covers more of Monk's lesser known tunes, while seamlessly integrating four Lewis originals into the mix. Lewis also adds a saxophonist, Reginald Woods, for some tracks this time around, and drummer Nasheet Waits replaces Cindy Blackman. Guitarist Ron Jackson remains in place. A self-taught organist, Lewis studied piano with Jaki Byard and Gil Coggins. His influences include pianists Elmo Hope and Herbie Nichols, and organists Larry Young, Jimmy Smith, Sly Stone and Tower of Power's Roger Smith. With such inspirations, it's no wonder that Lewis' approach is both open-minded and fearless. His experience as the organist for the Calvary A.M.E. Church in Brooklyn, New York, only further broadens his range of expression.

"Little Rootie Tootie" contains a sinister opening by Lewis that leads to a brisk organ-tenor essay of the theme. Jackson weaves an intricate solo, followed by Woods with a gruff tone and attack. Lewis blends long tones with fleet runs and urgent riffs in his improv. Waits is his usual assertive self, prodding the band unerringly. For Lewis' "In the Black (My Nephew)," the organist and guitarist set a dirge-like mood for Woods' breathy statement of the melancholy theme, which he repeats with added gutsy fervor as the others' playing intensifies in tandem. Sadness and anguish are the alternating currents of this gripping track. Monk's relatively obscure, boppish "Humph" is graced by Woods' skillfully undulating solo that evokes Monk's tenors of old, and by Lewis' restlessly probing examination. His bass pedal artistry is fully evident during this zestfully swinging performance.

Monk only recorded "Skippy" once (1952), and Lewis borrows from the composer's own coda for his hypnotic intro. Waits offers up snappish snare drum-centric support throughout the piece, during which both Lewis and Jackson create surging up-tempo solos. Woods' intro to "Ugly Beauty" is somewhat harsh-toned, as Lewis' organ conjures up a spooky haunted house atmosphere. The tenor's reading of the melody is warmer and full of emotion, as is his subsequent moving solo. Lewis then plays the bridge with a throbbing vibrato-laced sound before Woods resolves an interpretation that captures unusually well both the ugliness and the beauty inferred by Monk's title. "Zion's Walk," written for Lewis' youngest son, is a duet with Waits, who has played with the leader for over 20 years. Waits stretches out on the intro before Lewis kicks into gear with a bluesy, blistering improvisation that displays his aforementioned imagination and technical mastery as well as anything else on the CD, particularly his momentous, driving bass pedal manipulations. Waits regains the spotlight at the end, trading energetically and lucidly with Lewis.

"GCP," for New York's Grand Central Parkway where the tune had its origins, is a catchy hard-bop line that engenders a slickly insinuating Jackson solo, a hurtling one by Lewis, and then second juicy helpings from each. Waits' persistently precise rhythms and the organist's cavernous ongoing bass pedal tones contribute both depth and variety to this appealingly bright diversion. Woods and Lewis intertwine compatibly on Monk's lighthearted "Stuffy Turkey" theme, after which Woods exclaims soulfully. Lewis' effervescent solo floats, spurts, and trembles, while Waits' jabbing figures both incite and affirm the message being delivered. "Bright Mississippi" is the longest selection on the disc, allowing the quartet to expound at a leisurely pace. Lewis refreshes the melody in his rendition, and Woods' solo is reminiscent of Johnny Griffin in its nimble runs and tantalizing riffs. Jackson is understated but compelling in his thematic conception. Lewis in turn holds one's attention continuously during his inventively constructed solo, with a diverse scheme both in his phrasing and tonal accentuations.

"Thelonious" finds Lewis and Waits alone together sauntering through the melody, the organist boldly injecting vibrato for the bridge. His solo delightfully captures Monk's playful spirit while moving agilely through assorted lyrical formulations. Waits' intuitive rapport here is an essential asset. The twosome also handle Lewis' "Why Not," which features the composer's prelude that modulates through several dramatic spurts prior to the duo engaging for the elaborately winding theme. Lewis once again makes plain his ability to create fresh, never static, unpredictable yet logical improvisations. The organist digs deep in his reverent voicings for "Crepuscule With Nellie," Monk's dedication to his wife, as his church background aids in producing a memorably seductive rendition, so powerful at times that it nearly drowns out the sole accompanist, Waits.

Lewis plays the theme of "Teo" in a likable, stuttering fashion, succeeded by Woods' jaunty and surging concoction. The leader then executes yet another engaging solo with an individualized mindset and flair. The program concludes appropriately with "52nd Street Theme," which Monk surprisingly never recorded. Waits' rapid-fire opening and coda, Jackson's sparkling staccato excursion, and Lewis' multi-shaded venture revitalize the frequently played tune.

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Scott Albin