James Brandon Lewis, a saxophonist who embodies and transcends tradition
When James brandon lewis plays the saxophone, he usually plants his feet shoulder-width apart and bends a bit at the knee, swaying and tunneling in a rhythmic flow. As a conductor, he performs almost exclusively his own compositions, which have melodies that wander, dart and fly, but often remain rooted in an impulse.
Even when the music hits cruising speed, Lewis takes his time on the horn, more interested in making sure you get a clear taste of each note than rushing to the next idea. However, at the end of a song, you will have the impression that you have covered a good distance with him, put a few tens of kilometers on the clock.
“Respect is important to me,” Lewis said on a Saturday morning, sitting in the sun at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village and explaining his commitment to clarity.
“There’s always this thing in the background with musicians, like, ‘Can you play? He said, referring to the strict meritocratic standards of the jazz bandstand. “But I put that in everything. If I want to write an essay, I have to be able to write well. It’s the same with poetry, the same with teaching me visual arts: peel off those layers.
Since 2014, date of its release “Divine journeys”, his second album, on Sony’s OKeh Records as a relative unknown, Lewis has earned a reputation as a jazz pioneer and keeper of tradition. Last year, he won the Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist Award in the DownBeat Magazine Critics’ Poll, putting an exclamation mark on his rise.
In an artistically dispersed era, when jazz is far too big and contested to hold still, it defined its own lineage of saxophones – a lineage that runs through Sonny rollins, David S. Ware and JD Allen, built around ideals of deep research and rhythmic exchange – and has continued to build.
He also amassed a catalog of poetry, creative essays and manifests that open windows on its process. In an essay from last year accompanying his album ‘Molecular’ he wrote: “It’s much easier to have an intact drinking glass than one that has been shattered into a million pieces. I prefer the latter’s challenge. No longer able to retain water, it offers on the contrary a perfect image of freedom and possibility.
Lewis’s new album, “Jesup Wagon,” released Friday, is a tribute to another polymathic figure who insisted on forging his own path: scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. Lewis read biographies about him before composing the seven tracks and two poems that appear on “Jesup Wagon,” and he became moved by the freedom with which Carver had traveled between the passions. But he couldn’t help but notice how his legacy had been carved out by history, reducing Carver to his association with one thing: peanuts.
In addition to being a botanist, educator and symbol from the black pride of the brutal Redemption years, Carver was an accomplished musician and painter. He insisted that art and science, as a process of discovery, were never in opposition. And he was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, whose discoveries sometimes put him at odds with the private sector.
“He was not a capitalist, in the grand scheme of things,” Lewis said. Although Carver has been an inventor on several occasions, he added, “He has hardly patented anything.”
At the turn of the 20th century, he took a big pay cut to start the Tuskegee Institute’s agriculture department, which helped turn this important black university into an important research institution. “Jesup Wagon” takes its name from the car Carver drove across the south during his years in Tuskegee, organizing protests for poor farmers on how to farm their land more sustainably.
This is Lewis’s ninth album as a leader, and his first with the new Red Lily Quintet, with Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Christopher Hoffman on cello, William Parker on bass and guimbri, and Chad Taylor on drums. and in mbira. Lewis generally prefers to play without a chord instrument behind him, which allows him a greater range of motion, and he chose this scale because he wanted an earthy, folk-like texture, full of rich layers but not the chord restrictions.
Sometimes elegiac, sometimes leaping, the arias of “Jesup Wagon” are among the most beautiful compositions of his career, built around overlapping melodic ribbons. On “Experiment Station” – its title comes from Carver’s nickname for his lab – an opening section of gestural bow strings and legato horns falls in a marching rhythm, led by Taylor’s drums. As Lewis unfolds his solo, the cadence crumbles again, reappearing only occasionally, in moments of fleeting cohesion.
Born in Buffalo in 1983, Lewis is the son of a preacher father and a teacher mother. He was exposed at a young age to a variety of music under the banner of jazz, including free improvisation in the Charles Gayle tradition and the slimmest disciples of Grover Washington Jr., another famous Buffalonian. What united them all was their attention to the rhythmic pulse. “It’s a groovy city,” Lewis said.
He learned clarinet at age 9, learning to play basic melodies before enrolling in the city’s arts college the following year. He studied with Carol McLaughlin and Dave Schiavone, prominent saxophonists and educators in Buffalo, while playing in church. There he discovered what it meant for music to brush against the holy spirit, but he also learned the importance of wearing a melody faithfully, in tune with the choir.
An honorary student and all-county band member, he attended Buffalo State University before transferring to Howard University in Washington. He earned a degree in jazz performance, then spent time living with his father in Colorado, immersing himself in the Denver scene and continuing to play religious music. Then he enrolled at CalArts in Santa Clarita, Calif., Where he studied with a faculty teeming with creative musical talent, including ttrumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Joe LaBarbera, and his creative identity began to find a more complete form.
Through a connection with pianist Matthew Shipp, Lewis caught the attention of Parker, a prominent organizer of the New York scene and esteemed bassist. Lewis invited him and drummer Gerald Cleaver to make an album; in 2014 it was released as “Divine Travels”, turning heads in the jazz world.
Parker himself was in awe of how a young Lewis seemed to both embody and transcend lore. “He was ready to take what he had learned and forget about it,” Parker recalls. “Which to me is always a good sign that a person is going to find their own sound.”
Almost a decade after that recording session, Lewis has become a vital part of the creative community surrounding Parker in New York City. “I think the James you hear in 2021 will be quite different from the James you hear in 2031,” Parker added. “He’s on the move. And he gets up.
In the mid-2010s, Lewis began performing regularly with a Washington-based rhythm section: bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren Trae Crudup III. In 2014, all three joined poet Thomas Sayers Ellis in Heroes are gang leaders, a set of lyrics and music that endures today and is now part of Lewis’ creative identity.
He now finds himself not only extending the lineage of his ancestors, but attracting their admiration – even emulation. Rollins, 90, widely recognized as jazz’s greatest living improviser, recognized his passion for playing Lewis. And JD Allen, just over a decade older than Lewis and a major inspiration, said he’s been excited about Lewis’ trio with Stewart and Crudup.
Allen said his 2019 trio album “Barracoon,” which featured a new and younger rhythm section, was directly inspired by the boundless punk energy of Lewis’s 2016 album “No Filter”.
“Barracoon” was my attempt to sound like the “No Filter” trio, ”Allen said in an interview. He recalls a recent conversation, in which he admitted to Lewis that mentoring had given way to exchange: “I said to him, ‘I was copying. you, man. ‘”
The articles in this series examine the jazz musicians who are helping to reshape the art form, often beyond the glare of the spotlight.