Thelonious Monk was an American original, a unique figure of his time and place. So is Greg Lewis, organist at the helm of Organ Monk, which on American Standard
expands upon its mission of interpreting Monk’s own compositions, just as Monk did himself.American Standard
, Organ Monk’s third album, takes up classic songs from the Tin Pan Alley songbook of the U.S.’s early 20th century. These tunes are recognized by virtually everyone raised in North America during the late 20th century, if only from subliminal exposure. They were written mostly for Broadway musicals, but were popularized onscreen by movie stars and ever since have been enjoyed by professionals and amateurs alike. Jazz musicians have improvised on them for decades. But you’ve never heard them like Organ Monk plays them – powerfully and soulfully for the 21st Century.
Thelonious Monk embraced these songs for his repertoire, performing some throughout his career. He recorded “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” for instance, as a 24-year-old at an after-hours session at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in 1941, and also in his final studio album from London in 1971, when he’d been touring Europe in a troupe rightly called The Giants of Jazz.
Such history is significant because whenever Monk touched these compositions he renewed them with his unmistakably immediate personal stamp. And that’s what Greg Lewis has done, here with tenor saxophonist Reggie Woods, guitarist Ron Jackson, drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons and trumpeter Riley Mullins comprising the expanded Organ Monk ensemble.
The band grabs the attractive, dynamic, exciting
elements that make these songs classics, and squeezes them for real fun. Greg Lewis, who wears a flowing monk’s robe, cowl down, when at his Hammond B-3, is a physically energized player. Like the wrestler he used to be, he pulls fast moves, rocking in rhythm, grinning maniacally as he rips through ideas. Reggie, Ron, Bean and Riley are splendid collaborators, each with style, chops and smarts they bring to the arrangements, their solos and also the group vibe. Something like collective improvisations burst out spontaneously several times in this set. Even when not playing, the musicians are intent on what’s happening. Listening to each other, they stay on beam being who they are.
· Reggie Woods, from Queens, leads a jazz trio, an acoustic Latin Trio, a reggae ensemble with steel pans and the much-in-demand party bands Soul Solution and Soul Street (which righteously boasts “Our Motown is authentic“). Reggie’s rough and ready, warm and grainy sax graced several tracks of Organ Monk’s prior album Uwo In The Black (2012). He flows even more forcefully here, turning familiar changes into fresh challenges, which he surmounts;
· Riley Mullins, born in Chicago, has been featured on the Wynton Marsalis/Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra album Big Train, with the Louis Hayes Quintet and New Jersey-based drummer Cecil Brooks III, and is also a member of pianist Joan Crowe’s The Jesters of Jive. Newest member of Organ Monk, Riley launches some daring tangents from these standards, and each time reels his lines back home;
· Ron Jackson, internationally established “urban jazz guitarist,” recording artist and bandleader, has been Greg Lewis’s match in Organ Monk since its first, eponymous trio recording in 2010. Few guitarists are flexible and imaginative enough to complement the rich, dirty, distorted sonorities that Lewis wrings from his organ. Ron does it — being funky and clear, providing balance and contrast, nailing the nuances of Monk’s material, co-signing Organ Monk’s directions, reinforcing its live feel;
· Jeremy “Bean” Clemons comes out of his native St. Louis’s famed drums and bugle corps tradition. He moved to Brooklyn in 2003 to join Andy Bey’s Quartet and work with electronic music guru DJ Carl Craig. Besides being in demand and making jazz gigs, he’s producer/co-leader of Soul Understated with vocalist-composer Mavis ‘Swan’ Poole. Organ Monk and Uwo In The Black featured, respectively, drummers Cindy Blackman and Nashiet Waits, but Jeremy’s always been Organ Monk’s main man. He and Greg Lewis have a special connection, evident on every track.
Finally: Greg Lewis is Organ Monk. He’s possessed with making music that flies. Self-described as “a product of the hip-hop generation” who loves pop, rock and classical music, Greg says he “grew up doing the human beat-box along with studying piano.” He enrolled in the New School Jazz program, was hooked up to the organ by his teacher Gil Coggins, and has ever since toiled in New York City’s jazz vineyard. Besides managing and fronting Organ Monk, he’s blues diva Sweet Georgia Brown’s accompanist and plays at the swanky Manhattan gentlemen’s club Sapphire. He’s had positive reviews and airplay for the first two independently produced Organ Monk albums, and has earned raves from crowds who’ve heard Organ Monk live, from Cartagena, Colombia to Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Thelonious Monk’s music is diamond-like, multi-faceted. He often distilled the essence of a melody; he employed emphatic, contrasting rhythmic attacks for different phrases or passages of a song; he bent and warped tonality. Greg Lewis revels in using the Hammond organ’s enormous sonic range to bring out Monk’s unusually stark, humorous, gothic musical personality. Greg honors as heroes earlier organ greats and multi-keyboardists, but he has pushed beyond imitation or emulation. He wants something to happen when he makes music. He wants to jazz it up.
Here’s what Organ Monk is working with and here’s what it’s done:
· “Liza,” written by George Gershwin for producer Florence Ziegfeld’s Show Girl of 1929, recorded by Monk with Art Blakey and Oscar Pettiford in 1956, with his quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse in 1964. Organ Monk bites off the theme, slips into the release, then takes off fast.
· “Lulu’s Back In Town” was written by movie pop-meister Harry Warren in 1935 for The Broadway Gondolier. Monk plays it circa 1956 in the documentary about him, Straight, No Chaser. No holds barred from the Organ Monk version. Reggie Woods has a lot to say about Lulu.
· “Nice Work,” as mentioned above, was a Monk favorite. Besides on his first and last recorded dates, he played it on his 1947 breakthrough session for Blue Note records. The song by George and Ira Gershwin was introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1937 movie A Damsel in Distress. Organ Monk realizes even nice work can have issues attached that might make one hesitate to take the job. Leaning on his chords, Greg creates suspense.
· “Dinah” was a hit for Jazz Age comic Eddie Cantor in 1923. Ethel Waters added meat to the lyrics; Coleman Hawkins solo’d on it in Fletcher Henderson’s band. When Louis Armstrong immortalized “Dinah” on film in front of a Danish audience in 1933 he called it “one of the good ol’ good ones.” Monk dug it out for his great 1964 album Solo Monk. Greg finds the roots of Monk’s “Criss Cross” in “Dinah.”
· “I Should Care” was a hit for Tommy Dorsey in 1945. It was also on Solo Monk. Riley Mullins takes it as a test of his balladry and passes with panache.
· “Tea for Two,” was composed by Vincent Youmans for No No Nanette (1925). Art Tatum blew away Manhattan’s stride piano masters with his version when he arrived in New York City in 1933. Is it corny that people love the tune’s portrayal of domestic bliss? Greg and Jeremy’s opening pas de deux leads to Ron’s entrance; then the guitar skips merrily down the primrose path, over Greg’s counterpoint.
· “Everything Happens to Me” was a chart-topper for Frank Sinatra in 1941 while he was with Tommy Dorsey, and is another selection from Solo Monk. Reggie’s statement, broad-shouldered and responsible, stands up to Greg’s swelling clusters.
· “Just a Gigolo” is a bittersweet theme, adapted from an Austrian song for the American market by lyricist Irving Caesar in 1929. It’s been covered by musicians ranging from Louis Armstrong to David Lee Roth, and perhaps most famously by Louis Prima. Monk cut versions in 1954, ’58 and ’62. Greg’s thick chords lend his statement a café ambiance; Ron’s variations suggest being a gigolo isn’t so bad.
· Don’t Blame Me,” by songwriting team Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, debuted in Meet the Baron, a 1933 movie with the Three Stooges. Ethel Waters saved the song from obscurity; Teddy Wilson’s solo version inspired Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, Lennie Tristano, perhaps Charlie Parker and Monk. Greg and Jeremy deliver one full chorus, full of drama.
· “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is the most extraordinary track here. Cab Calloway sang it in 1931, George Harrison cut it on his final album, and Monk recorded it in 1967. Organ Monk, however, takes the composition as an occasion to explore the outer limits of intuitive ensemble interplay. Its main motif rises gradually from the murk like some ocean monster, Ron’s guitar beeping like sonar. Reggie is a shark navigating the currents; Riley a scuba-diver using a muted, Milesean tone. Jeremy skims the rocks and shoals, while Greg’s organ is expansive as the waters that wrap the earth. It’s an edgy, brooding performance, drawing listeners in.
With American Standards Organ Monk delves into the soul of jazz now, the illuminating quirks of Monk and the enduring qualities of popular songs that precede and may outlive us all. To reset the metaphor: Greg Lewis and his bandmates dig into the wine-cellar, find fine old bottles, give them a shake and open them to fresh air. Doing so, they celebrate Monk’s values, present their own originality, and reinforce jazz values in the creation of new, true American standards.
* * *
Howard Mandel is the author of Future Jazz and Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz, a blogger at ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz, a reporter for National Public Radio and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.