Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black
By Brian Arsenault
Listening to jazz genius Thelonious Monk has always made me anxious after about eight minutes, confirming son Kurt’s belief that I am a music primitive. Interestingly, however, it’s Greg Lewis’ composition on the second track of Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black, not surprisingly titled “In the Black,” that gave me my first taste of Monkxiety on the album.
The first track, a Monk composition like most of the album, entitled “Little Rootie Tootie” is this jumpy little tune about Monk’s then infant son. Maybe it’s Lewis’ big Hammond organ sound that smoothes out the dissonance of Monk for me.
Lewis is said to be self taught on the Hammond, imbued with Queens New York church music. And we’re not talking the church music of New England Congregationalists here. Listen to “Ugly Beauty” to get my drift.
But it is Monk that is Lewis’ primary musical love. “Uwo” — for short, it means the number two in an African dialect — is the second in a Monk trilogy Lewis has dedicated himself to accomplishing.
“Little Rootie Tootie” is but one of the songs with family ties on the album. The other-worldly but plain-titled “Skippy” is dedicated to Monk’s sister. Was she extraterrestrial? I’ve always thought Thelonious was from a place where rhythm and tempo are different, just as I believe Charlie Parker was from some faraway place where music is better.
Continuing the family based songs, there’s Lewis’ tune “Zion’s Walk,” written for one of his sons, and Monk’s beautiful “Crepuscule with Nellie,” a dedication to his wife. (For the uninitiated, “crepuscule” means “twilight.”)
Isn’t it funny that we don’t commonly think of cool jazz guys composing about kids, spouses and family? The songs have to be odes to good scotch and late and nasty nightlife, right? It shows that hipsters too can fall into cliches and base prejudices.
“GCP”, is named for the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, New York, where the liner notes (of course they aren’t “liner notes” anymore, are they?) say the song first came to Monk. Puts me in mind of James Joyce walking endlessly around Dublin coming up with story lines. Even if you sometimes have trouble with the intricacies and complexities of jazz generally and Monk specifically, you’ll easily follow this bouncer. And like it.
Throughout the album, Lewis’ organ playing alternates from crescendos indicating that angels are about to arrive to soft, ‘crane to listen’ melodiousness. He’s balanced by sometimes downright scary drumming by Nasheet Waits and sings harmony with tenor saxophonist Reginald Woods. (Note to Woods, if I was even half as accomplished at anything I’d want to be known as “Reggie”.) Guitarist Ron Jackson fills in where Reggie doesn’t.
There’s a stretch in the middle of the album led off by “GCP” and including “Stuffy Turkey” and “Bright Mississippi” which will make the whole house feel good on a bright Sunday morning. I’d call it happy time but that doesn’t do the tunes justice singularly or collectively. Joyous works.
The album concludes with “52nd Street Theme,” which Monk wrote but never recorded. I think he should have.
Photo courtesy of All About Jazz.
Brian Arsenault’s November and Other Tales is a collection of short stories exploring the way cold comes by degrees in winter and in the human heart. To check it out, click HERE..