James Brandon Lewis Continues To Shatter Expectations on Powerful New Quintet Set, Jesup Wagon (TAO Forms), Paying Homage to George Washington Carver, with Liner Notes by the Noted Historian Robin D.G. Kelley
James Brandon Lewis (tenor saxophone, composition)
Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Chris Hoffman (cello),
William Parker (bass, gimbri), Chad Taylor (drums, mbira)
AVAILABLE MAY 7th FROM TAO FORMS
LP (deluxe gatefold sleeve) / CD (deluxe digipak)
DL (w/ extensive digital booklet)
Voted Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist in the 2020 Down Beat Magazine International Critic’s Poll, James Brandon Lewis supercharges his remarkable evolution on the New York jazz scene with Jesup Wagon, a brilliant and evocative appreciation of the life and legacy of turn-of-the-19th century African-American renaissance man George Washington Carver. The album, to be released on TAO Forms on May 7, 2021, consists of seven pieces that taken together create a portrait of stunning clarity and depth.
There is so much special about this recording, James’ eighth, starting with the lavish artwork, including a reproduction on the cover of Carver’s own tantalizing drawing of the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, which is shown in a photograph on the rear cover, rendering a dialogue of representation and abstraction that Lewis models in the music. And while liner notes are generally more relied upon than celebrated, Jesup Wagon’s are delivered by the great UCLA American historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who in 2009 released the definitive Thelonious Monk biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. His notes, printed lovingly on an ochre background, contain much historical detail about Carver, particularly as they relate to the tunes. The fact that Kelley was willing to write them tells you something about the power of the music on the album, which Kelley calls “a revelation.”
If “revelation” is a word commonly used to describe master saxophonists like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and Dewey Redman, then it fits easily in the horn of James Brandon Lewis, who is a keen student of those and many other elders. But while boundless energy characterizes his playing, it is also grounded by a deep sense of narrative, which is why he is attracted to histories, like Carver’s, or to theories like his own Molecular Systematic Music, used on his superb previous 2020 Intakt album, Molecular, or to artistic genres such as surrealism, modeled by Lewis on An UnRuly Manifesto from 2019.
“How can you convey these things with just sound?” Lewis asks. “I’m not interested in going into the studio just for the sake of recording. How do you make music have a sound image? All these things I’m interested in are innate in my being.”
Helping James get it all out on Jesup Wagon is the Red Lily Quintet, anchored by the tectonic rhythm section of bassist William Parker and drummer Chad Taylor, and rounded out by cornetist Kirk Knuffke and cellist Chris Hoffman. Parker, who James says “has looked out for me ever since I arrived in New York City,” is a genius of the stand-up bass who performed with grandmaster Cecil Taylor for 11 years straight. He is also a renaissance man in his own right. Chad Taylor, “one of the most melodic drummers I’ve ever played with,” James says, is a Chicagoan who has gifted to New York some of the energy and drama the windy city is known for. Kirk Knuffke, is one of New York’s rare cornet players, using that instrument’s impish tone to explosive effect on dozens of records by New York jazz heavies. Chris Hoffman made his bones playing Henry Threadgill’s demanding music in a few of the great alto saxophonist’s bands, and has worked with artists as diverse as Yoko Ono, Marc Ribot and Marianne Faithful.
James grew up in Buffalo, which he calls a “groove town” of “hard workers” like Grover Washington Jr., Charles Gayle, Rick James, and Ani DiFranco, among them. Starting out on clarinet when he was 9, James moved to alto sax at 12 then tenor at 15. He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. where he studied jazz fundamentals, then enrolled at Cal Arts in Southern California, working with greats like Wadada Leo Smith, Charlie Haden, and Joe LaBarbara. Notching his MFA there, he did a residency at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music where he worked with trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Angelica Sanchez and saxophonist Tony Malaby, among others. It was in Banff where he dove into the world of free jazz, continuing in that vein at an Atlantic Center for the Arts residency led by iconic New York City pianist Matthew Shipp.
“Matthew got me playing without a piano or a guitar,” says James. “That set me on a tear. I could just follow a melodic line without any harmonic constraints.”
Shipp and a few others lured him to New York City in 2012, where he quickly fell in with the cutting-edge artists, including drummer Gerald Cleaver and William Parker, that populate the jazz scene there. His second album, Divine Travels, released in 2014, featured the latter two musicians. Two albums he made in duets with Chad Taylor – Radiant Imprints (2018) and Live in Willisau (2020) – demonstrated that James had no hesitation dancing on the same wild turf that John Coltrane entered with his latter-day records featuring Rashied Ali on drums, although James says the inspiration was more Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell’s duet, Red and Black in Willisau, recorded live in 1980. “Chad and I bonded over that one,” James says. Either way, it’s heady company.
Lewis also has an affinity for the spoken word, demonstrated on Jesup Wagon by a few timely placed short recitations. “Music is enough. But the older I get it’s important for me to have the listener hear my speaking voice,” he says. “Makes it more organic. I like to tell a story with an album.”
Poetry is just one of Lewis’ many obsessions, which also include painting, hip-hop and philosophy. “All of the people I admire have that kind of depth,” Lewis says. “William Parker, Oliver Lake, Yusef Lateef, all these amazing artists. George Washington Carver was a musician, a painter, a prolific writer, in addition to what most people know about him. Having a broad range just makes the cast iron skillet more seasoned.”
And now, in our pandemic era, James delivers Jesup Wagon, essentially a collection of tone poems – or, as Duke Ellington might have called them, “tone parallels” — Duke being the instigator of this type of programmatic jazz.
Poetry in music is what we get in this new masterpiece from James Brandon Lewis, who looks to be crowned a master himself in the not-too-far future.
Photo Credit: Diane Allford
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