James Brandon Lewis: The Storyteller


Lewis said that performing live is “an act of vulnerability since playing a show is being in the moment forever.”

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

“I’m constantly searching and pushing,” New York-based saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis says. “I don’t live my life by the moniker that there’s nothing new under the sun — I’m not interested in that kind of sun. There’s always more to be discovered.”

This year, Lewis will turn 40, and that restless sense of creativity shows no sign of slowing. He just released Eye Of I (ANTI-), his 10th album since 2010’s Moments, and has a forthcoming project celebrating the work of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, For Mahalia, With Love (TAO Forms). He is completing a doctoral degree on his theory of “molecular systematic music” at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is about to embark on a nationwide tour. Speaking over a video call, it’s the punishingly early — or late — hour of 4 a.m., and Lewis is bright-eyed and beaming from his Brooklyn apartment, readying himself to catch a morning flight to San Diego for the tour.

“I usually get up by 6 a.m., so this isn’t a problem for me,” he laughs from a darkened room. Thankfully, in London, where this writer is calling from, it has just turned 9 a.m. and the morning sun is streaming in. Notwithstanding the hour, Lewis is riding high, capping off the most successful two years of his career.

In 2021, as the COVID pandemic continued to fill lives with a lingering sense of danger and uncertainty, Lewis released Jesup Wagon (TAO Forms). Across its seven tracks, Lewis’ horn is incantatory in its clear melodic phrases, guiding his Red Lily Quintet through meandering passages of cornet and cello or punctuating assertions of drums and upright bass. Other instrumentation includes the guembri, a Moroccan bass lute, and the mbira, a Zimbabwean thumb piano, each adding an earthy groundedness to his compositions dedicated to Dr. George Washington Carver, a son of slaves and a polymath who developed innovative farming techniques in the early 20th Century.

Artfully interweaving this historical frame with his declarative melodies, Jesup Wagon — named after the vehicle Carver used to travel the American South to teach rural communities sustainable practices — found widespread critical acclaim for its cinematic themes and enveloping consistency.

Lewis went on to win the DownBeat Critics Poll Rising Star Award for tenor saxophone, while the Red Lily Quintet also topped the Rising Group category. Meanwhile, Jesup Wagon was voted the critics’ choice for Album of the Year.

“With every album I make, there is a sense of storytelling and a sense of reclaiming my musical identity,” Lewis says. “Jesup Wagon was me peeling back the layers of my onion — I was thinking about my upbringing, the sermonic melodies of the church and how Carver himself was always on the fringes.”

Lewis references his childhood summers spent at the Buffalo Science Museum, hearing jazz concerts while his mother, who worked as a science and social studies teacher, would be developing curricula for her students in the building. “She introduced me to Carver, and when it came to thinking about ideas for an album, I was drawn to investigating him further and the intersections of those influences of music and science,” Lewis says. “Carver used to say that he spoke to the plants to come up with his knowledge — he wasn’t afraid of those types of creative answers, even though he knew the academic protocol, he pressed up against it. That’s the model I use.”

Subverting protocol is certainly a driving force for Lewis’ wide-ranging artistry. In his blues, for instance, he is untethered from rigid metronomic structures to let his changes ring free, while countermelody consistently shadows his clear-sighted tones. For Eye Of I, Lewis was similarly unpredictable. Rather than replicate a formula for the success of Jesup Wagon by investigating another inspirational historical figure to write about, for instance, he instead went back to the basics, leading a trio with Chris Hoffman on electric cello and Max Jaffe on drums.

“I went inwards with Eye Of I, since it is a record about spirituality and one that searches for the answers in us,” he says. “I’ve been in the trio format since 2014, and I love it. It challenges me since there’s nothing really to hold on to with so few players. I have to have a harmonic sense that’s free, free to go right out to the fringes.”

Composed as live performances began to reemerge in the wake of the pandemic, Eye Of I harnesses the raucous energy and intuitive confidence of the stage while searching for answers to the existential changes wrought by global COVID shutdowns.

“The record is part introspection and part chasing the energy — I have tracks like ‘Send Seraphic Beings,’ which is asking for help from above, and then ‘Within You Are Answers,’ which comes with such a sense of certainty,” Lewis says. “There’s everything from soul to free improvisation and punk rock being drawn upon.”

Indeed, Eye Of I trades on a genre-hopping sense of vitality, playfully luxuriating in the wide-open tones of Donny Hathaway’s 1973 song “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” which Lewis describes as being “drenched in emotion,” as well as tentatively ascending to a soulful melodic monologue on “Within You Are Answers,” or delving into a distorted cacophony on the title track. It draws on the tapestry of Lewis’ varied career as a bandleader and sideman, working with the likes of Marc Ribot’s raw and confronting Ceramic Dog, experimental guitarist Anthony Pirog and Wilco’s Nels Cline. “I’m making music without the movie and building a mental image,” Lewis says of his compositional process. “There’s a sense of drama, a sense of hope. I’m trying to pull on every available aspect of the emotional spectrum. I like the idea of building something up in the listener.”

Amid the instrumental tension and propensity for hard-blowing freakouts, Eye Of I is also a record surprisingly filled with space and tenderness. On tracks like “The Blues Still Blossoms” and “Womb Water,” Lewis’ tenor is plaintive and yearning, breathing through the gaps in rhythm and harmony as if pleading with the listener to heed its emotive message. Part of the impetus for this melodic clarity comes from Lewis composing on the piano, he explains. “Writing from an instrument that isn’t my own makes me operate in a deficit on purpose,” he says. “The piano lets me reach a level of simplicity that forces me to be musical in a lyrical rather than technical sense.”

Simplicity also stems from immense confidence and a willingness to sing out unadorned and exposed. “As I’ve gotten older, the challenge for me with the saxophone is moving past all of the buttons to press,” Lewis says with a laugh. “Now, I want to make small and powerful statements, just like the nuggets of wisdom my grandmother used to instill in me when I was a kid. I’ve spent a long time being trained and honing my technicalities, to the point where my musical sensibilities are a trained intuition. It’s a practice in knowing when to play and what to play. Sometimes I’m not thinking about anything other than blowing the paint off the walls, and other times, I’m narrating a story about my life.”

Growing up in Buffalo with his educator mother and pastor father, Lewis began learning the clarinet at age 9. “The few professions that I wanted to be as a kid were scientist or inventor, musician and basketball player,” Lewis says with a smile. “I was fascinated with music, and in the public school I went to, you had to be 9 years old to learn an instrument. As soon as I turned 9, my mum asked me if I wanted to learn one because she noticed I was always singing the music from the movies I watched.” Growing up on a diet of Disney classics such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, Lewis began shaping his ear for memorable melodies and soon learned how to apply them to his instrument. “I’ve always had this strong, melodic sense, and I was fascinated by the investigation of it,” he says. “It’s about finding your voice and what it is you want to say.”

That investigation continued at Howard University and then CalArts, where Lewis focused on saxophone and composition while being taught by memorable mentors including bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.

“Charlie always made the melody mean something when he played, and that has really shaped how I approach composition now, too,” Lewis says. “He also used to talk about being a quality human, as well as an accomplished musician, and that’s something I’m always trying to work towards. Wadada would, meanwhile, study so many genres in class, always searching for “the moment” that made each composition unique. He really opened my ears.”

It is ultimately on the shoulders of the educators and undersung heroes of the contemporary jazz scene like Henry Threadgill that Lewis believes his achievements have garnered their recent success.

“None of us make it on our own, and I’ve had strong people in my life who always encouraged me, no matter what,” he says. “If people acknowledge you, cool, if they don’t acknowledge you, cool. The work continues, since this is a life’s endeavor. While awards and accolades are great — the horn doesn’t remember them; it meets me all the same. I’m just trying to play music at the highest level that’s within me to reach.”

Still, there is one accolade that stands out as particularly special. “Unbeknownst to a lot of people, Sonny Rollins has been digging my playing since he heard me in 2014,” Lewis says. “He has always supported me over the years, and it’s really humbling. I’m just James — it’s crazy that he knows my work!”

Most recently, Rollins gave this effusive quote when it came to Lewis’ playing: “When I listen to you, I listen to Buddha, I listen to Confucius … I listen to the deeper meaning of life. You are keeping the world in balance.”

It is momentous praise from the saxophone colossus, indeed, and a support that you sense keeps Lewis striving for new heights. Most notably, he has spent the best part of the last decade working out his own “artistic DNA” through a doctoral program studying what he calls molecular systematic music. “It all started when I was studying my improvisations and, in my mind’s eye, I began to see two notes oscillating back and forth, like a spiral. That led me to be curious and to formulate my own harmonic and melodic formulas that you can hear in my playing,” he says. “The best way to know one thing is in the context of another, as Leonard Bernstein said, so molecular systematic music became a metaphoric system that sees how the idea of molecular biology can repackage or reimagine music.”

Not only is it an academic pursuit, but Lewis’ work in the interstices of biology and improvisation are also the subject of a quartet who play these new melodic formulas, freed from conventional chord structures and changes. It is all expression that Lewis sees continuing in the lineage of great improvisers, such as Rollins himself. “So many of the greats have answered questions that we can explore further,” Lewis says. “What Ornette Coleman did with the melodic line is what Jackson Pollock did with widening and expanding the canvas. It’s all about expanding our palette or expanding our surface to allow the melodic line to travel. I’m engaging in that exploration.”

There is a molecular systematic music album already prepared for release, Lewis says, while a more immediate project nearing the horizon is his tribute to 20th Century gospel pioneer Mahalia Jackson, For Mahalia, With Love. Reuniting with the Red Lily Quintet from Jesup Wagon, Lewis’ nine-song tribute is perhaps the clearest expression of his monologuing melodic fascinations.

Through the reinterpretation of Jackson’s longing entreaties on standards like “Go Down Moses” and “Deep River,” Lewis’ expansive tenor tone performs the perfect ventriloquism of her mighty voice. Although decades separate them, on the clarion-call solo opening of “Swing Low,” as Lewis riffs on a quickening, looped phrase, it is as if their breaths are one — both vocalizing their commitment to a higher spirit.

“The thread that holds most of my albums together is my relationship to spirituality and to God,” Lewis says. “This record stemmed from a conversation I was having with my grandmother, who told me that she had heard Mahalia Jackson sing when she was a kid in Buffalo. It ignited my fascination, and I started thinking about how I heard Mahalia’s approach to ad libs even in my grandmother’s singing in church.”

With the grant from a MacDowell Fellowship that Lewis was awarded in 2022, he spent five weeks researching Jackson’s life and immersing himself in her world. “I want at least one segment of my being and playing to focus on my cultural background, and gospel music has played an integral part for me,” he says. “It’s like the artist Jack Whitten’s Black Monolith series where he’s memorializing historical figures in jazz in his own medium. I’m doing the same with Mahalia but also my grandmothers and my mom. That kind of work deserves love and attention.”

As his 40th year approaches, Lewis is putting himself further into the frame of his own work, whether it be through his theories of biology and intuitive music-making, or his tribute to his female forebears.

“The more I began to dig around in my own head and my own way of being, the better the music became,” Lewis says. “I had to decide that I was going to begin to shape and tell my own stories, because it’s my path. No one else can draw on that but me. The music and the level of personal investigation is all one thing now. It’s all flowing.”

For now, Lewis’ flight is fast approaching and he has a different flow-state to get to, onstage. Does he enjoy performance as much as his prolific recording career?

“Performance is a playful exchange for me. It’s a way to extend the conversation of the album,” he says. “Really, it’s an act of vulnerability since playing a show is being in the moment forever. It’s intimate, which means that it can be good and it can be critical. All of those feelings are what you sign up for when you say you want to be a musician.”

It sounds like a challenging state to live in, but Lewis sees it all as part of his eternal quest for creative self-expression.

“One of my biggest fears is becoming complacent — I don’t want to be stagnant,” he says, while packing up his bag. “The thing that drives me when I’m playing my sax is the idea that there’s more to be discovered, so I’ll never shy away from my curiosity.”

Thankfully, the results of that exploration are available to hear in Lewis’ expressive playing. They are musical messages bound to ignite vital inspiration in countless others. DB

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