For the past eight years, jazz organist Gregory Lewis has been cultivating a special little niche for himself, one that celebrates the compositions of Thelonious Monk on the Hammond B3. Organ Monk Blue is the fourth album he’s made under this concept, and when you hear him jam away on “Mysterioso”, you can’t help but think why more people haven’t been pursuing this avenue thus far. It could be that others have tried to nail that combination before, suffering from a lack of exposure. After all, they didn’t have Marc Ribot in tow.
If you follow modern jazz guitar with any regularity, you may recall another time when Ribot lent a hand to another organ-driven ensemble. To get from End of the World Party (Just in Case) to Organ Monk Blue, swap out the hard funk for something mellower, replace the jams with compositions that showcase odd harmonies, and let all of those smooth and the bop elements hang in perfect balance with one another. Drummer Jeremy Bean Clemons keeps the grooves tight without being uptight. Organ Monk Blue is not a bold or revelatory kind of album, but it’s gloriously fun.
If we can give Lewis any credit for breaching protocol (aside from playing the organ instead of the piano), it would be his covers of choice. A few obvious Monk standards are here, including the slow-and-dirty reading of “Green Chimneys” that gets things rolling. But when was the last time you heard devotees of Thelonious Monk jam away on more obscure numbers like “Blue Sphere” or “Blue Hawk”? According to Organ Monk Blue‘s press release, the latter was recorded by its author only once, nearly 60 years ago. The former has the least straightforward introduction of the eight selections here, with all three musicians just feeling one another out over the bluesy chord changes. “Raise Four” shows just a tad more unity under Lewis’s odd yet intriguing right-hand ostinato. I don’t know what kind of harmony that is, but I like it.
Marc Ribot is the perfect chameleon for a project like Organ Monk Blue. He can go from providing just the right amount of background shading to taking barnstorming leads where the listener can happily get lost between blues, rock, or jazz. Jeremy Bean Clemons proves to be valuable as well. A lesser drummer would have been at a loss for what to do during the first two minutes of “Nutty”, where Lewis takes his time hammering out the melody. But it’s no big deal to Clemons, who gives just the right amount of rolls and taps to keep things in motion.
The most no-nonsense moment on Organ Monk Blue is saved for last with “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are”. Unlike some of the other selections, this one settles into its groove from the start. It’s an unassuming ending for an album prizes good vibes over musical innovation, which is the best one can hope for when updating the music of Thelonious Monk. The compositions themselves are about as innovative as possible. All of the modern tweaks we lend these days is just gravy.