“Organ Monk” weds funk & Thelonious, soul and smarts

Organist Greg Lewis, wearing a monk’s robe, plus guitarist Ron Jackson and drummer Damion Reid, tore up with full respect the knotty compositions of the late great Thelonious Monk last night at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. About a dozen people heard them over a 90 minute period (they played a full set, took a break and performed one more extended tune before turning the stage over to guitarist Mike Stern) but it was one of the most enjoyable sets I’ve caught for months.

Playing a Hammond C-3, which he explained was a B-3 restored and put into a (somewhat) more easily transportable cabinet, Lewis demonstrated complete mastery of Monk’s penetratingly insightful, somehow intuitive melodies and startlingly flexible rhythmic structures. While the music of Monk has become iconic for jazz modernists as Bach’s is for classicists of the Western European tradition, generating tribute albums from talents as disparate as Wynton Marsalis and Hal Willner, Lewis’s interpretations capitalize on the reedy sustain of his instrument to highlight the “ugly beauty” (Monk’s term) in the songs’ often close-interval riffs and “wrong is right” (another Monkism) chords.

Lewis improvised excitingly, opening up “Little Rootie Tootie,” “Evidence” and “Think of One” among other tunes with dazzling fast finger runs and emphatic clusters, sometimes quoting other Monk songs in the midst of the one his trio was addressing. Jackson’s thick, clear tone and flowing solos admirably matched  Lewis’s interpretations and Reid, a last-minute sub for the trio’s usual drummers, was also fully aware of the repertoire’s quirks, adding his own intense energy. Mentioning he’s recently performed and/or recorded with saxophonists Steve Lehman, Steve Coleman and Rudresh Mahanthappa and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, Reid is in demand and his playing showed why.

Lewis’s album Organ Monk made my 2010 best of the year list, and I’m still listening to it (he’s recorded a followup, which awaits final mixing and release). A native New Yorker whose father David Lewis was a jazz pianist, Lewis plays Harlem venues including Showman’s Lounge and the Lennox Lounge where pretensions gain no traction but expressive soulfulness is prized. He claims organist Larry Young as his main instrumental influence; Young (1940-1978) was arguably the last organist to reframe his instrument’s potential (on both his own albums and with Tony Williams’ Lifetime). Lewis takes the advanced keyboard technique and free-thinking Young espoused (and others including Joe Zawinul, Don Pullen, Andrew Hill and John Medeski have each in their own ways have demonstrated) to compositions which boast distinct integrity, retaining the bluesy drive and church-redolent atmospherics of the first generation jazz organists (post-Waller and Basie, Wild Bill Davis and Milt Buckner leading to Jimmy Smith). And Lewis with Jackson and Reid (on the Organ Monk record, Cindy Blackman drums) are impassioned. All of which added up to breakthrough music, enriching and fun, jazz and beyond jazz.


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