Jazz Album Reviews: A Trio of Organ Trios Who Pull Out All the Stops

By Allen Michie

Here’s a trio of organ trios from a new generation of players indebted, but not chained, to the classic jazz format and style that has been dominant since Jimmy Smith in the ’60s.

Organ Monk Going Home  – Gregory Lewis (Sunnyside)
Wonderful! – Mike LeDonne (Cellar)
PSA – PSA Trio (PSA)

Talented players are using the organ trio to look back to tradition, forward to new directions, and sidewise to other musical approaches.

Organ Monk Going Home  – Gregory Lewis

Gregory Lewis, also known as “Organ Monk,” is committed to his vision of bringing the music of Thelonious Monk to the Hammond B3. He has found his niche and, to his credit, he’s come up with a distinctive style to fill it. Monk’s angular bebop is not a natural fit for the organ (an instrument, to my knowledge, he never played). The traditional Hammond B3 sound is more attuned to the greasier side of the blues, gospel, grooving jump tunes, and soulful R&B riffing. Monk’s music certainly grooves, and virtually all jazz has some degree of blues in it, but it’s coming from a very different place. To square the circle, Lewis calls on technique, creative arrangements, and a highly supportive rhythm section — all of which he has on Organ Monk Going Home.

Lewis is joined by Kevin McNeal on guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums. Any session of Monk tunes is demanding for the drummer, and giving the gig to the alert and propulsive Waits was a good call. McNeal keeps the trio rooted in tradition with his classic Grant Green sound.

This is Lewis’ sixth album of mostly Monk tunes on the organ. Organ Monk Going Home digs deep into the catalog in order to mix up familiar songs with some of the less-famous Monk compositions. “Evidence” and “Brilliant Corners” are here, but so is “San Francisco Holiday,” “Brake’s Sake,” and “Two Timer.” There’s one Lewis original, a not-particularly-Monkish ballad.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of Monk in Lewis’ soloing. Some Monk quotes appear from time to time, and Lewis extemporizes on the melodies, but his improvisational tendencies don’t generally go in a Monk direction. There’s not much of Monk’s characteristic intervals and rhythms. And, of course, you lose Monk’s percussive attack on an organ. There’s nothing much anyone can do about that, although Waits helps by adding punch on the drums (especially on the up-tempo opener “Who Knows”). McNeal isn’t particularly Monkish on guitar, either. None of this is necessarily a criticism — you should sound like yourself, not like Monk, even when you’re playing on a Monk tribute album.

“Evidence” is a swinger. It’s an example of the dynamic between Lewis (who tends to play it choppy) and McNeal (who tends to play it smooth). There’s a welcome extended unaccompanied solo from Waits, who shows off his melodic talents on his carefully tuned drums. It’s not a stretch to imagine his solo transcribed for a horn player.

It’s great to hear Monk’s strange melody, “San Francisco Holiday,” which sounds a bit like a calliope when played on the organ. (Come to think of it, can we hear some Monk’s jaunty music on calliope? Anyone?) Once the solos start, however, Monk’s melody is left behind with the arrival of the more conventional jazz solos. The better arrangement is on “Brilliant Corners,” where the solos are doing more than just jamming. The organ coasts on layers of sustained chords, as only an organ can do, stacking them up to build tension. The sweet release into swing arrives in a second solo. There are two very different tempos at play here, which creates more of a Monkish aesthetic. “Gallop’s Gallop” has a similar formula: Monk’s melody is in one tempo, syncopated, with the swinging solos in another tempo. Waits keeps it diced up on snare even as his ride cymbal swings away.

“Jacklyn’s Eyes” is the Lewis original. It has a floating, free tempo, allowing Waits to explore sounds and textures on his kit over the sustaining chords on the organ and guitar. They find a slow groove three minutes in, and they use it to build tension under a rising melodic line. The guitar supplies a harder, more processed sound. Again, it’s not particularly Monkish, except in its iconoclasm and originality. It’s an unexpected end to a mixed but imaginative album.

Wonderful! – Mike LeDonne

Whereas Gregory Lewis’ new angle is playing Monk on the Hammond B3, Mike LeDonne’s new angle is combining a gospel choir with jazz organ. LeDonne claims this has never been done before, which is a head-scratcher, given that the organ comes to jazz by way of the African American church gospel tradition. To be fair, such a claim depends on a rather narrow definition of “jazz organ,” because the wailing sound of a Hammond B3 master in the throes of inspiration makes what little difference there is between jazz and gospel seem completely meaningless.

LeDonne’s claim is also problematic in practice since the album’s choir isn’t particularly gospely. It’s used here basically as a riffing machine, not that different from a horn section. It’s also just 11 people. At LeDonne’s request, their lyrics are strictly secular, limited to such bland gospel-adjacent sentiments as “Let us go,” “Come on go with me,” “You’re wonderful to me,” and the like. You’ll have to decide for yourself if the non-denominational payoff was worth stripping the gospel choir of the full power of its distinctive and traditional strengths.

The opening track, “Let Us Go,” has guest soloist Vincent Herring on alto mixing it up with Eric Alexander on tenor in back-to-back solos. Guitarist Peter Bernstein stays inside the classic sound and groove, as does LeDonne on Hammond B3 in his short solo. The gospel choir sounds good, especially when the handclaps come in just before the fadeout (aaaagh!). But their repetitive, monosyllabic, and vanilla lyrics drag the piece down. LeDonne isn’t bothered by the thin lyrics. He is the originator and organizer of the Disability Pride Parade in NYC, out of support and affection for his daughter Mary. “Even though Mary is non-verbal, I could just imagine her shouting ‘Come on, go with me!’ to the 11,000 people from the disability community walking/rolling down Broadway in the parade behind us,” the organist writes in the liner notes.

The choir isn’t missed on some of the stronger instrumental tracks. “Lonnie’s Lament” is a John Coltrane tune, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio where Coltrane originally recorded it. Dedicated to Dr. Lonnie Smith, the track is true to that spirit; the organ solo has some of his choking runs up the keyboard. LeDonne keeps it right on the borderline between blues and jazz, just where a swinging organ trio needs to be. Alexander tips his hat to Coltrane for a moment in the second chorus, but his consistent point of reference is the king of the organ trio tenor sax, Stanley Turrentine. On “Make Someone Happy,” the album gets its first real ballad, and Alexander takes the opportunity to go full Turrentine, complete with Mr. T’s signature touch of reverb and particular way of snipping off a phrase.

“Put It Back” is a blues that starts strong with Joe Farnsworth’s drums and Daniel Sadownick’s percussion. The Hammond B3, as always, sounds fantastic when accompanied by tight conga percussion, which puts some heat into LeDonne’s solo. Everyone gets to show off their bop chops on “Genesis.” It will always be amazing to me that organists can play walking bass at this kind of tempo with their feet, all the while simultaneously soloing and comping. There’s nothing more energizing than the punchy sound of a B3 at a blazing tempo. Ashford & Simpson’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” is taken at a fast tempo, too, which brings out a melodic and grooving solo from Bernstein on guitar. The choir, maddeningly, only sings the title.

The choir finally gets to dig in with some actual material on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It works surprisingly well as an un-schmaltzy blues shuffle. (Come to think of it, pretty much everything would work great as a blues shuffle. Prove me wrong.) The organ trades some call and response with the choir for the melody, providing some welcome interaction.

Hopefully, Wonderful! will serve as an inspiration one day for other organists and gospel choirs to finish what LeDonne only sketches out here. LeDonne’s band is on the Boston jazz scene, so keep an eye out for them. I’ll bet they can put on a smokin’ live gig.

PSA by PSA Trio (PSA Records)

Here’s a trio that draws as much from The Tony Williams Lifetime and Medeski, Martin, and Wood as it does from Jimmy Smith’s trios. The PSA Trio consists of Pritesh Walia on guitar, Sahrik Hasan on keyboards, and Avery Logan on drums. Their concept and execution is much more collective than the other trios reviewed here, where the organist is clearly the lead instrument, the guitar provides support and the occasional solo, and the drums provide the groove. There are three leaders in the PSA Trio, and the music is richer and more diverse for it.

They’re following up what Dr. Lonnie Smith was doing right up to the time of his death — infusing jazz, blues, psychedelic rock, and trance music into the grooving traditional organ trio. The PSA Trio’s guitarist, Walia, has clearly been listening to Smith’s guitarist, Jonathan Kreisberg (as more guitarists should be doing).

Walia is a monster on guitar. He has multiple textures, sounds, and personalities at his fingertips throughout the album. On the ballad “Dogwood,” he sounds a lot like John Scofield in the late ‘80s (a compliment), on “Don’t Look Down” he’s playing a synth-processed guitar that sounds like Pat Metheny, “Onward” sounds like Mike Stern, and “Cliff Dunes” finds him with a more conventional jazz trio sound (and I hear a touch of Stanley Jordan).

Similarly, keyboardist Hasan has a deep bag of tricks. Like John Medeski, he has no problem with adding synthesizer sounds to the trio, but overall he sustains a link to the Hammond B3 organ trio tradition. “Dogwood” has him sounding like Chick Corea in Return to Forever, “Circle Around” sounds almost mechanical in places, and on “Troxy Fot” it sounds like an underwater electric piano in an echo chamber. I’m not sure that’s working well musically here, but it certainly isn’t the same old thing.

The grooving tracks seem to swing all the harder in contrast to the rock-oriented tracks (sometimes within the same track, as on “Don’t Look Down,” where the swing sections sound like opening a window and letting in a cool breeze). “Cliff Dunes” is a straight-ahead shuffle with a traditional organ trio guitar sound, although with an edge in places. The organ is fairly restrained behind the guitar, not goosing him up the way Joey DeFrancesco or some other organists would do. Logan is a fine drummer, but you can tell he’s perhaps more at home with the rock chop-busters than with a shuffle groove. He keeps gravitating toward the grand fill gesture. There’s a groove, but not a deep one. I prefer more pocket and less rocket.

“Hymn” is more churchy than the LeDonne tracks with an actual gospel choir. It starts with wobbly church organ playing that might be heard every Sunday morning in small Protestant churches throughout suburbia, with hints of some chord changes from “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” I’m not sure how tongue-in-cheek this is meant to be in the context of this album. It’s not especially soulful or bluesy, and I kept looking at how much time was left on the track and hoping that the next one would have the B3 come in and save me with a rousing sermon.

“Onward” shows what this trio does best. The melody is a bluesy post-bop line. With Walia on guitar, you can imagine Scofield playing this tune with Miles Davis’ mid-‘80s band. Walia plays blues shading without the clichés, finding more abstract harmonic angles the way Mike Stern would. Hasan picks up on this with a solo that intersperses classic jazz organ runs with more abstract material that grooves nicely on top of the syncopated bass line on the pedals. The uncharacteristic subtlety of Logan’s rimshots on the drums is more interesting, and it’s more helpful to the groove of the tune. It sets up a satisfying contrast to his concluding explosion all over the full drum kit.

PSA is a highly promising new trio. They’re also from the Boston area, so don’t miss them if you get a chance to hear them stretch out live.

None of these organists are really screamers like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, or (at times) Joey DeFrancesco. Nowhere on any of these three albums does the organist sustain a high blue note while stacking up riffs underneath it, building tension and making a live crowd beg for release. That’s some of the most powerful music to be heard in all of jazz, but we’ve heard it all before. Gregory Lewis, Mike LeDonne, and the PSA Trio each have a different angle and a different mission, and each deserve praise for pulling out all their stops.

Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. You can find an archive of his essays and reviews at allenmichie.medium.com.


  1. Mike LeDonne on March 14, 2024 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you Alan Michie for taking the time to write your negatively positive review. The problem with reviews like this is that they set out on an agenda to prove the artist wrong. In other words the writer is the real expert and the musician simply a student. The classic mistake of reviewers who choose to play the “expert” like this is that they become so focused on elevating themselves above the artist, and being “right”, that the music winds up taking a back seat.

    Case in point – right off the bat I feel the need to tell you that this is not a Gospel recording because so much of your review is attempting to belittle the music by judging and comparing it to actual Gospel music. I love Gospel music and have been collecting it and enjoying it for some 30+ years. This recording, however, is The Groover Quartet + Gospel choir not a Gospel Choir with the Groover Quartet. Those are 2 very different animals. The term Gospel here is meant to reflect the style that the choir is arranged in not the the actual genre of music. That means the music utilizes a choir arranged in the Gospel tradition of triadic harmony and purposely stays away from the more “jazzy” harmonies that might be heard on other jazz recordings with voices. The words were kept non denominational so it would be obvious that I wasn’t attempting to actually make a Gospel recording. Instead the choir was utilized to enlarge the sound of the Quartet and add to the spirit and groove of the music.

    One of the issues you stated right in the beginning of your piece was with my claim that Jazz organ has never been recorded with a Gospel choir before. You stated that “the wailing sound of a Hammond B3 master in the throes of inspiration makes what little difference there is between jazz and gospel seem completely meaningless.” Actually being in “wailing throes” has nothing to do with it. While Gospel and Jazz organ playing are both done on Hammond Organs the techniques are very different and the overall vibe is also very different. I love Gospel organ and while I’m enamoured of what they do it is very different from what I do or, more to the point, what Jimmy Smith and the entire history of Jazz organ players going back to Fats Waller did. There are definite similarities as I state in my liner notes and that’s the organic thread that makes this music work IMHO. You are correct in saying that there would be no Jazz without Gospel but let me allow you to stop scratching your head because even though Jazz and Gospel are genetically linked they are as different from each other as tigers and cats.

    You made the mistake of reading that there were 11 people in the choir so you assumed that is all you were hearing. What you’re actually hearing, thanks to the very painstaking process of overdubbing the 11 voices singing live 4 times in a row, is 4 X the voices or 44 voices. While still on the smaller side for a Gospel Choir that is still a very legitimate amount of singers to make a Gospel choir. As I explained already the number of singers does not make a choir a Gospel choir, it’s the way it’s arranged that gives it that sound. Even if it’s not as grand as a 150 voice Gospel choir (which I would have loved) it is a beautiful sounding choir that created a very unique sound for the unique music we created that day.

    You wrote that the choir’s repetitive, monosyllabic, and vanilla lyrics “Let Us Go” and “Come On Go With Me” drag the piece down. The truth is that they are doing exactly what any Gospel choir does when they sing behind the lead vocalist, In fact that is one of the only actual covers we did on the recording and it follows what the choir sang on the original recording of that Gospel song. I doubt you would have said THEY were too “vanilla”. And how can the words Let Us Go and Come On Go With Me be vanilla anyway? I find that part of your writing ableist and offensive because, if you read my liner notes, you’d know that they are the words I could hear my daughter Mary shouting to the disability community coming down Broadway behind us in the Disability Pride Parade in NYC (which I created) if she could talk. Believe me there’s nothing “vanilla” or lightweight about being disabled and non verbal.

    Hearing those words sung by the choir and thinking of them coming from Mary is a huge part of the reason I stuck my neck out and making this very personal recording. I wanted to shed light on the strength and positive power that comes from love. The fact that Mary’s birth caused this huge event for the whole Disability community in NYC to be created is a testament to that. This is where your agenda to play “expert” stopped you from hearing the spirit and relentless groove of the music that was flowing into your own ears.

    Again I thank you for giving me the opportunity to make these points known to the public. I look forward to hearing the Jazz organ and Gospel choir recording that you create.

  2. Allen Michie on March 14, 2024 at 11:02 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Mike. I’m glad readers here will get another perspective, and hopefully many will seek out the album and give a listen to decide for themselves. Thanks for all of your artistry and commitment!

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts