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Sunday, December 18, 2022

James Brandon Lewis Roundup

By Nick Metzger

It’s widely acknowledged that New York saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis is a special musician. Over the last several years he’s given us plenty of corroboration for advocating that sentiment with a string of excellent releases. There are the instant classics - albums like his 2014 debut Divine Travels, 2018’s Radiant Imprints, 2020’s Molecular, 2021’s Code of Being and DownBeat’s album of the year Jesup Wagon. Albums where his sound arches the past and the future, tying the black spiritual jazz tradition of the 1960’s firmly to the black avant garde of the new millennium. Then there are albums like 2019’s An Unruly Manifesto, 2021’s Resilient Vessel, and the entirety of his work with Heroes Are Gang Leaders that find him engaged in a fusion of hip-hip, soul, funk, and punk. Piling on, Lewis is also one of the best free improvisers you’ll ever hear, as evidenced on albums like 2020’s  Emergence with his group Orientation of We, or on his trio release with John Edwards and Mark Sander’s at Cafe Oto , albums where the conceptual rigor that underpins his composed work is stripped away, revealing his power, energy, and prowess in the most exposed of settings. Lewis is advanced and his approach is perhaps most eloquently defined by the man himself in a metaphor that has certainly become a favorite of mine:

“It is far easier to pick up a drinking glass that is unbroken than one that has been shattered into a million pieces. I prefer the challenge of the latter. No longer capable of holding water, it instead offers a perfect image of freedom and possibility. Examining the individual pieces allows one to explore the fragments of beauty itself. Along the way, one discovers the shape and character of every shard: “Pick a rose to pieces,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, “and every petal is lovely .”

James Brandon Lewis Quartet - Molecular Systematic Music - MSM Live (Intakt, 2022) *****

When I reviewed Molecular back in 2020 I mentioned that based on how fantastic Lewis & Chad Taylor’s Live at Willisau was (where they adroitly expound on material from Radiant Imprints) that I was hopeful that there would be a live release at some point featuring the “Molecular” material. Well, here it is, and it’s every bit as superb as I could’ve hoped for. On Molecular Systematic Music - MSM Live the original works serve as jump-offs for intricate and expansive treatments, long solos, and contemplative group interplay that sees the length of the original album nearly doubled. The set reshuffles the track order only slightly, retaining the flow and feel of the original album but with a sense of unabashed joy and thankfulness, as well as a desire for exploration. You can tell the players want to hear where the material will take them as much as the audience does. It’s noteworthy that this is the premiere live performance of the “Molecular” studio material, over a year after the album’s 2020 release date. There was some uncertainty as to whether this set would happen at all in May of 2021 as global cases were still high, but ultimately the quartet arrived at their destination in Zürich, Switzerland for the 2021 Unerhört! Jazz Festival and unleashed this fantastic set of tunes.

The album begins with the thrum and swell of opener “A Lotus Speaks”, the sophisticated melody ascends into tremendous solos from Lewis and Ortiz, among the best they’ve recorded. “Helix” then offers an upbeat changeup to get those toes tapping again. Superb polyrhythms, but never so complex as to lose the swing, are capped by a stout solo from Jones. This all melts across the first few bars of “Of First Importance”, a truly sentimental piece and a favorite of mine from the original album. This version is expansive and the quartet really gets the feel just right with top notch playing all around. Likewise on the title track “Molecular” Lewis’ wide vibrato and precision phrasing sets up another slow roller, but the mirage masks the dynamism to come on the latter part of the song. Lewis issues staccato stabs over the plunky chords and steady rhythm of the band, almost playing his horn as another rhythm instrument.

On “An Anguish Departed” the quartet purposely wanders through an extended windup, the track unfurling behind the theme and coalescing into two powerful solos from Ortiz and Lewis. “Cesaire” is both elegant and bouncy, alternating between the effervescent romp of the rhythm section and soaring passages from Lewis. The quartet ratchets up the drama on “Neosho”, which is alternately scrappy and labyrinthine, the passages twisting into strange forms out of the base material. The quivering intro of “Loverly” precedes a wonderfully slinky solo from Jones, as Taylor merely accents the soft piano chords of Ortiz before Lewis takes it home. The band closes the live set with the heady vamp of “Breaking Code”. With piano, bass, and drums in absolute lock step, Lewis refrains for almost half the runtime before joining in the dance. It’s an unrelenting last push of rhythm and melody, ending with the appreciative applause of the audience. This live set is one of my favorites of the year and if you liked “Molecular” then picking this one up is a no brainer.

Floy Krouchi, Benjamin Sanz, James Brandon Lewis - CLIFFS (Off, 2022)

CLIFFS is a collaboration between Lewis and French musicians Floy Krouchi on fretless bass and Benjamin Sanz on percussion. Recorded over two nights at the AMJi Jazz Club in Avignon, France back in March 2019 this one comes as an unexpected - but very much appreciated - gem. This being my first exposure to the work of Krouchi and Sanz, I came away really impressed with their playing. The two are fantastic improvisers, both challenging and complementing the great saxophonist. Krouchi released a solo electroacoustic album Vibrant Continuum in 2020 that you can get in a bundle with this release (you can also get a bundle with the aforementioned album from Orientation of We) from the Off Records Bandcamp site. Finally, Parisian composer & percussionist Benjamin Sanz has been releasing new jazz for quite some time, and in writing up this release I discovered his 2020 album The Escape, one that I’m looking forward to spending some time with in the near future.

The first track “The Door to the Cliffs” opens like a fire alarm, all urgency and agency. Krouchi’s rounded tone roils beneath Sanz’s searing percussion, emitting random sparks of glitchy electronic crackle. Lewis is brilliant, alternately melodic and testy while continually pushing the tempo. On “The Three Streams” the trio are in no hurry, working up a billowing and expansive soundscape marked with an uneasy innervation. Lewis offers soulful lines, growls, split tones, and false notes over the electroacoustic din as Sanz and Krouchi add dramatic low end rumble and bright metallic accents. Over the last third of the track the trio comes to life, reveling in an easy flow of intricate interplay. On “Heavy Interlude” things get, well, heavy. Krouchi’s bass, now overdriven and sounding much more ominous, buzzes out a riff over a steady 4/4 rhythm which pulls the blues from Lewis’ horn. It’s over before you can get your head around it, but the rest of the album follows suit. On “Transe With Arabesque” the bass line plots the course with its driving precision. Lewis follows with probing calls and lyrical lines. Then on “Mallets Ballad” the trio contrast processed bass lines against barely there percussion and growling sax, again punctuated with sometimes jarring split tones. The closer “Freqsnetics” cooks at a low intensity with Krouchi laying down atmosphere and single reverberating notes against the rustle of percussion and tight knots of reedy weather. An excellent release.

James Brandon Lewis - Eye of I (Anti, 2023)

On the forthcoming 2023 release Eye of I, Lewis’ first for the Anti label, he is joined by Chris Hoffman on electric cello and Max Jaffe on percussion for a scorching trio set. Our readers will know Hoffman as a member of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, Double up, and 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg ensembles as well as being on Lewis’ Jesup Wagon as a member of the Red Lily Quintet. That’s only scratching the surface really, as he’s played broadly with everyone from Marc Ribot and Jeremiah Cymerman to Iron & Wine and Yoko Ono. Similarly Jaffe has been involved in and recorded with a wide array of players and projects over the past decade-plus, such as the art-rock band JOBS with Jessica Pavone, Amirtha Kadambi’s Elder Ones, Chives and Killer Bob with Steven Lurgener, as well as with Peter Evans, Ava Mendoza, and many others. This wide-ranging experience base plays into a very unique sound here. Lewis explained that he loves the give-and-take of this trio, stating “The first time we played, things just lifted up right away. Everything that group does just feels fresh.”

“Foreground” explodes with a feral burst of glitchy percussion, low-end cello, and squawking sax that works like ammonia salts for the weary listener. Next is an instrumental cover of Donny Hathaway’s great 1973 R&B standard “Someday We’ll All Be Free” with Kirk Knuffke guesting on cornet. The track is as cathartic as it is transcendent, the horns doubling up on the melody with Hoffman laying down a bed of distortion against Jaffe’s explosive drums. On “The Blues Still Blossoms” the trio loosens and the melody can’t be held back. Lewis and Hoffman retrace the line over and over, adding flourishes yes, but you get the sense that they are driven by the very essence of the music. My thoughts go to Roy Neary in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and his obsessive drive to sculpt the alien landing spot out of a mound of mashed potatoes among other materials. “Middle Ground” is a quick, heated blast of energy that serves as a transition from the soulful back into the cleansing. The title track “Eye of I” is all sturm und drang, the distorted grunts of Hoffman’s cello thundering resounding amidst the heavy percussion as Lewis absolutely goes off.

On “Within You Are Answers” the trio again shifts back into a more emotive refrain. The caroming percussion and plucked cello perfectly complement Lewis’ snaking ear worm. The next track “Womb Water”, following a pattern, reintroduces discord. Hoffman bows a steady droning counter to Lewis’ husky lines as Jaffe propels the trio along a jagged course. “Background” wraps up the fore/middle/back interlude theme with 30 seconds of high octane burn. On the next piece, “Send Seraphic Beings”, the group stretches out on a great melody that lopes along between fierce solos from Lewis. As the album winds down, “Even The Sparrow” sees Knuffke return for what might be the most solemn track on the album. Soaring but almost mournful, the horns dance with and around each other, the cello and drums sounding much more than the sum of their parts. The album closes on “Fear Not” with the trio joined by the Messthetics - none other than Joe Lally and Brendan Canty from Fugazi with Anthony Pirog on guitar. The track is a wild mashup of punk jazz led by Lewis’ horn and marked heavily by Pirog’s pyrotechnic guitar playing. A fantastic album that gives Lewis fans something to be psyched about for 2023 - out February 3rd.


Daniel Boeker said...

Thanks for the nice overview. I am really looking forward to the release of Eye of I. One more album for this amazing list might be "Say What" released via WeJazzRecords. Also an amazing album with JBL.

Anonymous said...

Excellent recommendation Daniel, thank you for that.