James Brandon Lewis: The Sound of the Moment

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Jesup Wagon is dedicated to Dr. George Washington Carver (1864–1943), a son of slaves whose boundary-defying life accrued accomplishments in music and painting.

(Photo: R.I Sutherland-Cohen)

A recording may become Jazz Album of the Year by epitomizing the sound of the moment or by pointing the direction where music is going next. Without meaning to do so, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis conceived precisely the music that a lot of people needed to hear, and recorded it with a band that pushed its leader to new heights.

Jesup Wagon is dedicated to Dr. George Washington Carver (1864–1943), a son of slaves whose boundary-defying life accrued accomplishments in music and painting, in addition to transformative advancements in investigative and applied sciences. It is named after the vehicle that Carver used to travel the American South in order to teach farming communities sustainable practices.

The album’s seven compositions pay homage to the plants and practices that Carver cultivated and studied, as well as places where he worked and the communities he strove to uplift. Celebrating an African-American scholar who dedicated his life to the redemptive potential of scientific inquiry, community service and creative practice made Jesup Wagon a welcome balm upon its release last May — after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid an ongoing plague of increasingly toxic social discourse.

Lewis’ horn opens the title track, calling the proceedings to order, punctuating incantatory phrases with coarse cries. After about a minute of solo saxophone, the other members of Red Lily Quintet, DownBeat’s Rising Star Group of the Year — convened specifically for Jesup Wagon — join him.

Cornetist Kirk Knuffke’s high notes vault over the saxophonist’s broad-shouldered statement, cellist Chris Hoffman plucks a jubilant countermelody and drummer Chad Taylor strikes up a surging attack that feels nearly out of control but anchors the actions with martial precision. Then the horn-and-string coin flips as Knuffke and Hoffman drop out while Lewis returns in tandem with bassist William Parker.

By the time the track is done, there’s a good chance that whatever blues have been dogging you have been banished.

On subsequent tracks, Parker sometimes switches to the guembri, a Moroccan bass lute, and Taylor to the mbira, a Zimbabwean thumb piano. Speaking by video-chat from Pittsburgh, where his trio was set to perform with a pair of wordsmiths at City of Asylum on the final night of Jazz Poetry Month 2022, Lewis explains, “I wanted instruments that represented the earth. They sound organic, they sound not electrified, and I needed that to convey some soil.”

On Jesup Wagon, tones establish character; themes and rhythms evoke cinematic visions. “Arachis,” which is named after the Latin appellation for the peanut, grew from an image of Carver in the lab with his students, using Bunsen burners. “I’m literally imagining visuals; I’m trying to paint with that,” Lewis says. “There’s a lot of lyricism in all of my music, and a lot of emotion. It’s pretty much drenched in emotion, without being overly sappy.”

The empathic support that the rest of Red Lily Quintet brings to the album is especially remarkable given that the group had little time as a unit prior to the recording. However, the musicians were hardly strangers. “Individually, I play with all of these folks,” says Lewis. “Chad and I have a duo. William and I have worked together for the last 10 years in different ensembles. I met Kirk in like 2013, and we haven’t played a lot together, but we’ve played enough. Actually, one of the first conversations that he and I ever had was about George Washington Carver. The only person that I’d only played with once was Chris Hoffman.”

Lewis is both bemused and grateful about the ongoing positive response to Jesup Wagon. “I don’t know why this album specifically resonated with so many people, but it did, and that’s cool, and I’m thankful that it did.” He reckons that the praise it draws reflects not only upon him, but the musicians who have inspired, guided, and encouraged him. “This album wasn’t all about me,” he says. “It was about the community of people doing work on the fringes, and when the album wins, we all win. Those who paved the way for me, the Wadada Leo Smiths, the Anthony Braxtons, the Henry Threadgills of the world, the William Parkers and Matthew Shipps, all of these people, Angelica Sanchez, you know? When one of these albums gets some kind of notice, it helps the community. I want to stress that.”

The originating impulse to work on Jesup Wagon was an invitation from another member of that community. “At the beginning of the COVID, Whit Dickey, who is an amazing drummer, called me up and said that he was going to start a label.”

The name of that label is Tao Forms. But the project’s first seeds were planted decades earlier. Lewis was born in 1983, the son of a preacher and an educator. “My exposure to George Washington Carver started when I was a kid. My mom was a science and social studies teacher in Buffalo, New York, where I’m from, and we would spend our summers with her as she was either working on exams for the city of Buffalo or doing different workshops. She was a hands-on teacher, and she exposed my siblings and me to that. So, eventually, as a young person being assigned to write an essay on somebody for science, I remember being exposed to George Washington Carver. A lot of times in my adult life I would go back and dig in my memory, and peel back the layers even more.”

The combination of self-directed and externally structured learning, during which Lewis often revisits earlier lessons, threads through his development.

He picked up the clarinet at age 9, and taught himself to play simple melodies before enrolling in Buffalo’s arts magnet middle school the next year. He played in school and church bands throughout high school, and then went to college at Buffalo State and Howard University. After a stretch of living in Denver, he resumed study at CalArts, where he fondly remembers the classes of Charlie Haden. “Charlie wasn’t a theoretical guy. He would tell us about his grandkids, or he would tell us about a hike he went on, and he would talk about beauty a lot. I never heard him waste a note that he played in class; every note meant something, and I tried to put a lot of that in my own playing, to play a melody where it means something. So, yeah, that’s one of the main reasons that I went to CalArts. Wadada (Leo Smith) and Joe LaBarbera … Alphonso Johnson, who I worked with after I graduated … you know, all nice people, too. I can’t stress that enough. Hella musicians, but also nice. I did not feel any ego at all.” Since 2012, Lewis has lived in New York. Since 2014, he has made eight albums as a bandleader or in duo with Chad Taylor.

Since recording Jesup Wagon, Red Lily Quintet has only played a few concerts, but a second album is being planned. Lewis currently leads a high-energy trio with Hoffman and drummer Max Jaffe; the James Brandon Lewis Quartet, with Taylor, pianist Aruán Ortiz and bassist Brad Jones; and the plugged-in Unruly Quintet. He is also a founder and continuing member of the words and music collective Heroes Are Gang Leaders. In April, Lewis became the first recipient of the Balvenie Fellowship for a doctoral program in Creativity at University of the Arts. “It’s an opportunity for me to get some questions answered from my own research, questions regarding molecular systematic music, which is something I’ve been working on since 2011,” he explains.

Molecular systematic music is the concept informing the saxophonist’s compositions for his quartet. In essence, the system involves the application of insights gleaned from Lewis’ study of genetic structures to his compositional choices. “Viewing music through molecular biology to recontextualize everything gives me a fresh start with music. You know that’s no different than if you hear about Sonny Rollins or someone going on a sabbatical, or Coltrane locking himself away in a room. I would say that molecular is my sabbatical, entering a new realm to discover something new to me. All of my albums and all of my theories have to do with me trying to reach the truest version of myself before I die.”

Ten days prior to Lewis’ conversation with DownBeat, 10 Black people died and two more were wounded in a racially motivated mass shooting that took place in his hometown. He closed the interview with these words: “Buffalo is a tight-knit community. I went to school with a young woman who lost somebody in that situation, and it’s unfortunate. It would be nice if we could all come together as humans and, rather than bickering and fighting, come up with some real solutions that can bring togetherness rather than division.” DB




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