New York native, keyboardist Greg Lewis, a highly accomplished mainstay on the city's jazz, blues and funk scenes, who has earned a solid reputation for his versatile work around town in a vast variety of settings, steps out front for the first time on his debut CD Organ Monk. Lewis' sensitive and soulful keyboard playing has made him a favorite among some of the music's finest vocalists - including blues queen Sweet Georgia Brown, jazz and soul songstress, Lezlie Harrison and ex-Brooklyn Funk Essentials singer / songwriter Stephanie McKay -- and earned him a featured role on saxophonist Sam Newsome's Groove Project recording 24/7. Now on Organ Monk the spotlight is finally shined on his enormous talents as the leader of his own all-star trio featuring multitalented guitarist Ron Jackson and drummer extraordinaire Cindy Blackman.
Born into a musical family, Lewis' introduction to jazz came from hearing Monk records from the collection his late father, pianist David Lewis, who was a dedicated fan of Thelonious. "It all started there," the younger Lewis proclaims, also naming unsung master Elmo Hope as a major influence. Lewis started his own piano studies at the age of eleven and began playing professionally around New York as a teenager. He credits jazz legend Gil Coggins, who sent him as a sub one night to a gig where there was a Hammond B-3, for setting him on the path to becoming a bona fide organist. These days Lewis has so devoted himself to mastering the difficult instrument with such fervor that he considers himself to be an "organ monk."
Working weekly for the past five years at the hip Brooklyn club Night Of The Cookers, with his regular trio featuring Ron Jackson on guitar, Lewis has honed his skills on the B 3 to become one of New York's first call organists. It was at the club that he first met drummer Cindy Blackman, who was so impressed with his playing that she sat in with the group and made arrangements to later perform with Lewis. An unwavering fan of the Tony Williams Lifetime group, featuring Larry Young on organ, Blackman is the perfect complement for Lewis', who names Young as his primary influence on the instrument (along with, of course, Jimmy Smith as well as Sly Stone). Lewis cites Young's landmark interpretation of "Monk's Dream" from the classic Unity album as a further inspiration for his decision to devote this his first date to the music of Thelonious.
Although albums memorializing Monk's music have become somewhat commonplace since the iconic pianist/composer's death, Organ Monk is most likely the very first on which the date is led by an organist. Lewis' years of familiarizing himself with both his instrument's expansive capabilities, as well as Monk's sizable songbook, have led to this inevitable debut recording that breathes new life into the master's repertory, while exploiting the Hammond B 3's vast (and somewhat untapped) potential for creating new sounds.
Despite its classic organ-guitar-drum configuration, Lewis' trio is far from typical in approach to making modern music. His arrangements of the fourteen Monk titles on the record are consciously contemporary in their originality, respecting the composer's melodic, harmonic and rhythmic voice, while using the different elements of each piece to propel the group into its own unique nexus, one where the customary divisions between soloist and accompanist are blurred, or even erased. Beginning with "Trinkle Tinkle", one of Monk's more intricate melodic lines, Lewis' mastery of both the B 3's dual keyboards and its too often neglected bass pedals is clearly evident, as is his fearless approach to arranging for the trio, with Blackman's powerful drums doubling the intricate melody with him.
Lewis' unaccompanied introduction to "Jackie-ing", slowing building around the chords of the playful Monk march before inviting drums and guitar to join him is an eloquent lesson in dynamic tension and release. The trio trips around in space with Lewis' organ at times reminiscent of Sun Ra before sliding smoothly into the infectious melody of "Criss Cross", with Blackman's drums offering a jagged contrast to the velvety tone of the B 3, before the trio settles into an earthy mood and then blasts back into the stratosphere to conclude astrally. The band's easy swinging reading of the beautiful "Light Blue", featuring Jackson's soulful guitar, is a ringing affirmation of the group's ability to shine brightly in the classic organ trio tradition, as is their burning up tempo rendition of the not often heard "Played Twice" that features an exciting Lewis-Blackman dialogue.
The date's other nine Monk pieces each offer a different perspective on the master's work. There's the bouncing rhythm that jumps out of the long tones that set up "Boo Boo's Birthday" and its fittingly funny quote by Lewis of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had A Little Lamb", followed the lilting rhythms of the bebop masterpiece "Coming On The Hudson." Blackman's energetic drumming on the fiercely burning "Four In One", reminiscent of Art Blakey's work with Monk, incites Lewis and Jackson to some of their best soloing of the date. Lewis' playing on "Locomotion" with his tonally expansive keyboard work, intelligent use of space and cleverly complementary bass line is nothing short of masterful. On "We See" the trio once again swings mightily, with Lewis clearly demonstrating the influence of the great Jimmy Smith on his virtuosic playing.
"Monk's Mood" is the date's most beautiful ballad, with Lewis displaying the sensitive lyricism that has made him the favorite accompanist of so many of New York's finest vocalists. The trio shows off its intuitive split second timing in an edge of your seat dramatic reading of the marvelous melody of "Think Of One", before digging down into their shared deep blues roots. Lewis' harmonic daring is clearly evident on his audacious arrangement of "Work." The final Monk piece of the date, "Introspection", is a fitting example of the unmitigated joy the trio finds in coming together to make great music.
The date's concluding coda is a Lewis original, "Kohl's Here", a fittingly Monkish melody dedicated to his teenage son that gives listeners a brief glimpse into the keyboardist's own impressive abilities as a composer. A talent that is sure to be seen in greater abundance on future releases from this extraordinary artist.
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