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Saturday, January 28, 2023

James Brandon Lewis: Eye of I ... and beyond

James Brandon Lewis. Photo (c) Cristina Marx / PhotoMusix

Interview by Paul Acquaro (with help from Nick Metzger)

Last month, Nick Metzger reviewed several of saxophonist James Brandon Lewis' latest releases. In fact, one of them, Eye of I, had not yet been released. Nick wrote: 

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... 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. (See review)

On the occasion of the album's release next week, Nick and I pooled some questions for Lewis, which in practice were almost not needed as the conversation seemed to flow with the slightest prompting. Lewis and I talk about his career's trajectory over the past few years, his upcoming album Eye of I, and then thing get really interesting.  

This interview was conducted on January 23.

Paul Acquaro: So, it seems the past few years have been pretty busy for you. Just thinking of your recorded music, you have had the three Molecular Systematic Music albums on Intakt. Unruly Manifesto on Relative Pitch, Jesup Wagon on Tao Forms, and there are others I'm sure that I haven't mentioned, but just considering those recordings, that's quite a stretch. On the MSM Live album, which was recording mid-pandemic, there's a little snippet that always catches my ear in which you're saying how excited you are to be playing this music live for the first time... so, to kick things off, my question is, how did you fare during the pandemic? What kept you busy?

James Brandon Lewis: Well, you know, it's interesting, I think at the beginning of the Pandemic, my last gig was at Town Hall with William Parker. He had put a band together to revisit his Curtis Mayfield project ... like around March 5th, I want to say.

I was scheduled to go on tour. I had put together a band, it was me, John Edwards, Mark Sanders and D.D. Jackson. We were scheduled to play like maybe four or five gigs together. I was just an impromptu thing. I've worked with Jackson before, and I've played twice with John Edwards, but only once with Mark Sanders. Mark Sanders, John Edwards and I played at Cafe OTO, a few years ago and that was pretty amazing (4.2.18, OTOROKU, 2019). So when that got canceled, I was worried. Like anybody, I think during the first few weeks, I was super stressed out, trying to figure out what I was gonna do for money. Let's just keep it all the way real. I fortunately have always been pretty frugal with my money, especially money I make on tour. So, I had some savings, but after a while I knew that it was going to dry up. So I just went into action mode.

But also, let me just stress that I know that my identity as a person was not attached to the need to play for an audience. I enjoy playing for an audience, but I've reached a point in my life where that aspect of music is a part of it. But for me, I'm just enjoying as I get older -- I'm not 40 yet, but it's barking -- that I've just learned via spending time with my family, my loved ones, the people I care about, that my identity rests in who I am in general and not that I'm a musician. However, I've never taken any gigs or any opportunities for granted. So, if it was gonna be over, I was okay with that. What I was stressed out about was what was I going to do to survive? Because, of course, I had worked other jobs when I was younger. It could have easily been a possibility to go stock shelves or go work at a library.

So, I went into action mode and I purchased some electronic equipment, I got an iPad, and I taught a few lessons online, which was very encouraging. I haven't done a whole lot of teaching. I've been a guest lecturer, and I've done master classes, but this was an opportunity for me to teach a lesson that I would've wanted growing up, even though these people were my age and older. Pretty much every lesson would start off with a quote, something for us to ponder, either related to music or not, but something that we'd kick off the lesson with something to think about. I would also assign a documentary to watch a week. It didn't matter the length, it didn't matter to the genre, just something that relates to creativity, what it means to be creative. And then I would assign listenings, because they were sax players. So the listenings would cover as much of the continuum of the saxophone as possible. One week we might be going over Sonny Criss. The next week we might be going over Frank Lowe or Frank Wright, and the next week we might go over Teddy Edwards or Bill Baron. And so the whole point was to assign listenings so that a person could hear the palette, it's like when someone's experiencing food or wine, you have to develop a palette to understand all the different ways that saxophone can sound. It wasn't really the kind of lesson where I would tell you about two-five-ones or scales to practice. I'm not the guy for that. Not that I haven't that information. I went to school for it, but this is not an opportunity for me to regurgitate information. It was an opportunity to give a lesson of where I'm at now mentally. I'm not opposed to that information, but I think we covered different things to think about, conceptually, sound, making your own scales, or as Nicolas Slominsky calls it in his book The Road to Music, a tonal ladder.

Eventually, gigs picked up. I was very fortunate on Molecular Live, in fact we were one of the first bands to leave the country when things started to open up again. It was a lot of paperwork to make it to Switzerland, the Covid tests and all the proof you needed to be able to travel. That record came out really well. We released the album Molecular in 2020 and we had only played that music once before the recording session, and then the recording session happened. So this was the first time we played that music live and those gentlemen are amazing.

Molecular marks a few time periods. Number one, it marks the time period of me understanding what I needed to grow. All the musicians in the band are older than me, that's on purpose, and they can all kick my ass any day of the week. There's definitely a systematic way in which I'm organizing the material, without a doubt; however, what they add, bringing their individual voices to the table and their skill-sets really pushes me to another place of growth and understanding. So, that's a long answer for what I was doing during Covid, but I wanted to put context around everything.

Molecular Quartet at Warwaw Summer Jazz. Photo (c) Cristina Marx / PhotoMusix

PA: So, I think you could you say that something positive that came out of this time for you?

JBL: Well, sure. I think it was more of a realization of a few things. Number one is that it gave me insight into the fact that I'm okay with life and I'm okay with what I've done with my life. And that I can honestly say that I've never taken any moment to play music with people for granted, because I had accepted that it was okay if this was over. The living part of that stressed me out, not the music part. The music is not the problem, it's everything around music. That's always the problem. The music, as in creating, is never the problem. So, there's a couple positives, but it's also like positive slash not negative, things that happened during Covid that were weird to me.

I'll give you an example. 2020, no one's playing and I win Rising Star Saxophones in Downbeat Magazine. I start getting all these reviews and awards during 2020 / 2021 when stuff isn't really happening. But the positive in that, and what I think happened, is that people had an opportunity to go through my catalog because everyone was home. So, when I won these awards -- and by the way, I have a new philosophy on awards, and that is, they're just merely markers of existence within this time period. They're not validations of skillset. I'm appreciative of it, but they're markers, markers of time, of space, no different than music. That's not to knock my accomplishments, but it gives me peace of mind to put 'em in that category because the horn is on zero. It has no memory. When I pick it up, it doesn't remember anything, I'm on zero. Every time I pick it up, it's on zero. There's no artificial intelligence in the bell. So that's humbling too. Anyway, I think that when all of that stuff happened, and then people became more aware of my work and they said, 'wow.'

There was a part during Covid when I said to myself, what purpose is this music serving? My mom had a few cousins die from Covid, how can I still be inspired to blow air through a tube while people are losing their lives? But then, eventually, I got to a point where I realized you have to pull yourself up and realize that your ship can't sink. You can't help other people if your ship is sinking. So, I got to a point where I had decided, okay, I can't allow myself to sink because music is what keeps me going … and that's when Whit Dickie, from Tao Forms, called me.

He said something like, 'this is going to come off sounding odd, but I'm starting a record label.' I'm like, oh, okay, you're starting a record label in the middle of the pandemic. You know, matter of fact, at the beginning, I think this was March 2020 and he might have called me in May. I said, 'Oh, okay.' I had some ideas of what I wanted to record and had been pondering and thinking about George Washington Carver for a long time and that's how that came about (Jesup Wagon, Tao Forms, 2021). So, yeah, some positives, people's awareness of my work and my efforts. I mean, that was kind of odd. You know, we're in the middle of a crisis and my career is rising. It felt weird to me. I didn't know whether to be happy or just like, okay, well cool. <laugh>.

PA: I guess it's like you said, you need to keep on doing what you do. You can't let everything weigh on you in that way that stops you. So Jesup Wagon, I'd love to come back to that later, right now I'd like to skip to what you're doing now ... coming out in a couple weeks is the Eye of I recording.

JBL: The week after next, February 3rd.

PA: Funny, I was so excited when I first heard the recording back in November that I put it on my best of 2022 list not realizing it wasn't released yet! I'll just have to postpone that sentiment until a year from now. Anyway, this album is a bit of different concept, I suppose. It's a trio and I believe you might have mentioned elsewhere that you had been thinking about this trio for a while. So how did it finally come together with Chris Hoffman on cello and Max Jaffe on drums?

JBL: Well, I work with Chris in different capacities, with Rob Reddy. That's how I met him. Then I ran into Max at the Vision Festival. But the trio concept in and of itself, regardless of the instrumentation, really first started when I met Matthew Shipp in 2011 at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. He asked me, 'James, have you ever play with just a bass and a drum?' And I said 'no.' This was coming off the heels of having graduated from California Institute of the Arts and working with Wadada Leo Smith and Charlie Haden and Joe LeBarbera, all these amazing people. So, he brought in two people who had with Sam Rivers in Florida, Michael Welch and Doug Matthews, and they came to Atlantic Center for the Arts. For me, that was the first time I had felt, I don't know, I felt liberated. I felt free, I felt uninhibited in that the melodic line could travel where I wanted it to go. I could be the guide, you know, the anchor. I had never experienced that before, and I had never, quite frankly, thought about it. Obviously, I've heard the same recordings that a lot of different people have heard. I've been a huge Sonny Rollins fan, a John Coltrane fan, you know, a student of the game kind of person, that’s me. But I had never thought about it in the context of myself and writing for that instrumentation. Eventually, that led to me recording with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver on Divine Travels and later on making Days of Freeman with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Rudy Royston, and then having another iteration of an ensemble with the bass and the drum. So these concepts aren't new as far as how I'm hearing the instrumentation. I think that for me, the concept in general is chasing energy.

During the second year of the lockdown, I was tasked with a commission to write a string quartet, and I really discovered that I have a very strong melodic sense. I did not know that for myself until I had to make a 40-minute string piece. And then I said, 'wow, okay. I think I do all right with writing melodies.' Also, the summer before last, I had come back from Europe where I was on tour with Giovanni Guidi, the Italian pianist. I made a tribute album of original music to Gato Barbieri with him (Ojos De Gato, CAM Jazz, 2021) in which Giovanni arranged his own original versions inspired by the recording Third World (Flying Dutchman, 1970) with Roswell Rudd and so on. We had a really amazing trombone player, Gianluca Petrella, also Brandon Lopez, Chad Taylor, and Francisco Mela. When I came back, I was on a high from that, plus my last trio album was No Filter (self, 2017) and that was 2016/17. So, there was a sense of renewal when I got back from Europe, and I said, 'I think I need to bring some trio music to the table. I'm feeling inspired again to bring that instrumentation back.' And the cello was just a thing that I wanted to have.

When I wrote all that music, I was thinking about certain things that Henry Threadgill had expressed to me during this time period in regard to sound, which is how I came up with the interludes. I had never had a saxophone player ever say to me, and I'm speaking about Henry Threadgill, 'are you into movies?' I said, 'no, not really.' He says, 'I'm into movies and I use movies as a way to think about sound as well as visual art." He says, 'have you ever thought about a note as having a foreground, a middle ground and a background?' I was blown away by that because as I'm playing saxophone, to think about a note, even spatially without the saxophone is, like my hands are just moving up and down. I'm listening for the note, I was never thinking about it from a spatial orientational point of view. I was only thinking about it as the sound. So, to think about it and then have a visual image of a note, having a middle, a front, a back, it was just really fascinating to me. And so I was thinking about that and I was also thinking about my ways of knowing and introspection, which is how I came up with the title 'Within You Are Answers.'

I was also thinking about birth and how we're untainted by the world, and I had played the Cecil Taylor piece, 'Womb Water,' which I've never found a recording of, but I had played with William Parker. When I started thinking about 'Eye of I,' I thought of the sense of enlightenment, of purpose, of how our perspective is always outside of us, and never it is in the opposite. You know, you're always, even when you're learning, they say, 'well, you should learn this person and this person.' They never say, 'well, you should learn you'. It's never that, it's never that for a while, until it's too late, and then you're off the planet. So, you spent your whole life learning someone else's ways of being rather than cultivating yourself. 'Eye of I' also has the whole kind of biblical premise that the eye is the lamp of the body, and when the body is filled with light, good things come from that. So, I'm trying to create music that reflects these sentiments, or reflects these feelings. I feel like titles really reflect, for me at least, exactly how I'm feeling. During this time of uncertainty, of war, of the back and forth between politicians, the mistreatment of minorities, mistreatment of women ... and politics is not something I'm at my house shedding, you know, I'm at my house playing music. I know my perspective on politics is very limited compared to someone who's a politician because they are masters at being mapped. People who want good for the world are working on it 24 hours a day, and people who want bad for the world are also working on that 24 hours a day.

PA: Yeah. Maybe even more.

JBL: Yeah. I'm not at my house working on the bad. When I was thinking about these titles, in all of that confusion and uncertainty, and all of the drama, for me, it's always a matter of, you know, send the 'Seraphic Beings' (a title of a track), send the things we need so we can get through this. And so everything's very purposeful.

And of course, Donny Hathaway, I love Donny Hathaway. 'Someday We'll All Be Free.' I love that. I've always loved that song. I've always felt like it sounds great, and it has this great metaphor in it ... (sings) "hang onto the world as it spins around. Don't let the spin get you down. Things are moving fast." That's awesome. Hang onto the world as it spins around. Yep. Don't let the spin get you down.

PA: You, you could hear that on several levels, right? Just take that word "spin"...

JBL: Right. On several levels. I'm excited for people to hear the music and I'll be on tour with that music, working with different musicians. I kind of just went to a model of opening up the ensemble. Working with Chad Taylor on some tours, and Josh Warner, and Bay Area based drummer Andy Niven. I decided I want to open up the trio concept to just not necessarily have set people. But I am definitely thankful for Chris and Max's participation in the record, but in the spirit of collaboration, I would like at least one of my ensembles to keep switching up.

PA: In, 'Someday We’ll All Be Free,' the second tune on the album, right after one of those little incidental tracks...

JBL: The interludes.

PA: Yes, the interludes, which I want to talk about too ... the Donny Hathaway song has a much different arrangement than the original tune. It's beautiful. The word I had written down for it was 'cinematic,' that song has a cinematic feel in the way you did it. What were your thoughts behind the arrangement?

JBL: Well, you know, it's interesting because I think I had been wanting to cover a Donny Hathaway tune for a really long time, but never felt like I was going give it a sincere JBL vibe <laughs>. What I mean by that is, there is what I would say is artistic integrity, right? I could go and make an arrangement and make it sound closest to how Donny Hathaway would perform it, but then I wouldn't be necessarily happy with myself because the me in it would be gone. So when I started thinking about this arrangement, -- another thing that I love doing, especially in the trio context is, after music school and all that jazz school is going back to some basic stuff like power chords, you know, just the one and the five and 1-5-1 or 1-4-1, whatever it's gonna be. I really like that sound because I feel like it is more open harmonically for me to really be able to hear outside of the key center. The beginning of that song kind of reminds me of the Eighties in the sense of everything was big. I heard that in my head, like if it was a stadium, and so compositionally I'm thinking rock. I'm thinking -- I mean, I was born in the early eighties. I remember certain things being big, and being like straight up rock vibes. And so then you have that intro, and then it segues into the verses, you know?

I'm pretty sure my melody, the way I'm playing Donny Hathaway's melody is in the same key except I changed the chords to power chords to make it loose, to open it up. I would listen to his version and the way he was singing it, and then I would sing it, and that's how I ended up composing it. I don't think you could play that song without really knowing the words, because the words are dictating so much of the rhythm of the melody.

There's so many Donny Hathaway-esque ways of phrasing. Something like when (sings) 'hang on to the world as it spins around, ride, just don't let the spin get you down. Things are moving fast.' This is exactly how we play it on the record. Then we rev up and then you hear Kurt Knuffke, who's on cornet, play that verse. It's a nice tribute. It's not exact, but I definitely felt like this is "Someday We'll All Be Free". I'm giving props to Donny because we're definitely playing the melodies. So that was that process of thinking about multiple things, thinking about soul music, thinking about rock, thinking about the Eighties. Then when we get to the blowing and it's all about freedom. Yeah. But we are free.

PA: <laugh>. You are. That's definitely free. I think that's the marker of a great song, right? You can take it, and you can change it, and you can make it yours, but it still is that song.

JBL: Right. Exactly.

PA: But now it's yours too. Thinking about rock, you have the song ‘Fear Not’ on the album. This tune almost gets into, I don't know, like Crazy Horse territory or something like that. How did that relationship or pairing come about you and the group, the Messthetics?

JBL: Well, I have worked with for many years at this point with Anthony Pirog, the guitarist. We first met at recording sessions with William Hooker and we know people within (Washington) DC. He linked up with the Messthetics a while ago. My interaction with them started before Covid. I think we played together at Winter Jazz, maybe 2018/19. They had me sitting in with them and we played a Miles Davis Tune and then we played something off Ask the Ages, the Sonny Sharrock album.

Then, over the summer, we all played at Union Pool together (performance space in Brooklyn). I sat in on two or three tunes and the vibe was so amazing. I had the opportunity to play with Joe Lally and Brenden Canty from the legendary Fugazi. It speaks volumes to their openness, and mine too, to not limit myself to 'well, this is what I am and this is what I'm not.' No, this is all about music in the spirit of music. And so during the process, after I recorded the album, ANTI suggested that I record a single, or some singles. It wasn't a requirement that I had to release a single off of the album necessarily, but they were in town, and they had asked me if I wanted to play at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn. So we played, and interestingly enough, it was the same night that Mark Ribot's Ceramic Dog was playing. Mark had me sitting in with them, and so basically I played the whole night, and it was a really great vibe. So, we're talking like three years at this point of collaborating.

I had written that song, 'Fear Not' years ago. Probably 2017/18, but I never had an opportunity to record it, though I played it in different ensembles. So, when this came up and they were in town, we knocked out a great arrangement of it, and the rest is history. Now we have these tours coming up. I have a tour coming up with them in February and March. And it's gonna be great, man. Those are great people to work with.

PA: Where is the tour? US?

JBL: Yes, on the West Coast. You know, we got some dates in LA, San Diego, the Bay Area, then a few in Portland, then in Seattle. In March, it'll be East Coast, New York, Philly, DC, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. It'll be pretty excessive, you know and I'm excited about it. They're a great band. You know, I actually have a gig coming up next Saturday with the Messthetics. We recently actually made a whole album together, but that's as far as what I can say about that.

PA: Okay. <laugh> a teaser. 'Eye of I' is being released by the label ANTI, which is kind of a rock label. I associate them with Tom Waits and Nick Cave and stuff like that. How do you see yourself fitting in on the label?

JBL: Well, you know, this is a thing. I think that the music itself, the entire album, is so many degrees away from ... it's like so close and yet so not so far <laugh> ... they're just open, you know, I felt like it was the perfect label for how energetic the recording is. I don't know if any other label could have really fit. For me, it felt perfect, a perfect label to put this stuff out with, and I think that when people hear the full album, they'll completely understand why.

I play the saxophone, which is always gonna dictate, based on the history of the instrument, jazz. That's what people think about, they don't necessarily associate it with rock, even though there's been this flirting with punk rock and avant-garde music as it relates to jazz avant-garde style or whatever you wanna call it, for a while. In fact, Thurston Moore did the liner notes. I met Thurston at a writer's institute at Naropa University, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Also, I've been collaborating with Ribot over the years. I'm on his Songs of Resistance album. So there's always this crossover, there's always these vibes that happen if you're open to it. And so, I've been open and I think people will receive it well. I think that ANTI has been very supportive, they're definitely trying to push the album to different people, different audiences, and I think it's already reaching different audiences. So yeah, I think it's a good fit for what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to chase energy. As far as dynamics is concerned, I don't know that I'm even thinking about dynamics too much when it comes to the trio music. I'm thinking about, especially live, that energy. I want it to be energetic and have that kind of punk rock vibe to it. It's not music for the faint of heart.

PA: The interludes, 'foreground,' 'middle ground,' and 'background,' they're really ear catching, let's say. They're different, there's a completely different aesthetic, and then they're gone. They start and you're like, 'oh, interesting. Where did that go?'' Anyway, do you hear a longer song in any of those?

JBL: Yeah, I do. But those were just kind of brief collective improv ideas. Some of this is stuff aesthetically that I have already done on previous albums. So, it's kind of like giving an audience a brief recap of what I've explored. Not necessarily all of them. There's some that I think could go anywhere, but those were definitely just kind of like little 30 second improvs.

PA: Since we're talking about how this album changes the energy or direction a little bit, I'm curious, what are some new releases or, or, or things that you've heard in the past few years that have caught your attention? It doesn't have to be jazz, of course.

JBL: Yeah. That's a great question because there's one album in particular that I've been telling everybody about that's been my unicorn, my fountain of youth, you know, my golden ticket, which is Motivation by Bill Barron, Kenny Baron's brother. That album has not been re-released, and you can only hear it on YouTube. Now, Bill Baron -- John Coltrane's generation -- when I discovered this recording on YouTube, I flipped the lid because it sounded so different. He sounds totally different than his generation. The way the tunes are structured intervallically, it's almost like hearing Eric Dolphy on tenor sax. So that's one of the things I've been listening to. Then the other day, I took a binge and revisited Ornette, which I do often, but in chronological order.

PA: Okay. Starting at the beginning.

JBL: At the beginning, yeah, Something Else. I just went forward and that was enjoyable. And then Teddy Edwards, I really got into him during Covid, a West Coast player. It just depends - oh, there's Stone Alliance with Steve Grossman. Chad Taylor hipped me to them. I don't think they ever made a bad album.

Something not related to music that I've been interested in is this philosopher, Henri Bergson. I've been reading Intro to Metaphysics. Bergson's philosophy centers around the fact that intuition is an absolute truth. And that reason, he makes the argument that a person who reasons or is operating in that vein is always outside of an object. They can give you the dimensions of it, and he simply makes the argument that a person who is operating with intuition is inside the object. They become the object, which I thought that is a good, that is what I need in my life, the intuitive.

PA: Oh, well, thank you. Some stuff to explore. Well, I really appreciate your time. I don't want to overstay my welcome here. So my absolute last question is, is there something that I should have been asking you? Something you'd like to talk about?

JBL: You know, the only thing I'm interested now in talking about is the fact that I'm, over the years, relentlessly determined to be my most authentic self. I've been putting out these recordings at a high rate not for the sake of doing it, but for the sake that I feel like I have a little bit to say, a little bit, not a lot, a little bit to say, and that you can't be beholden to the past forever. Eventually, you have to step out and say, 'I have something I would like to say if it's okay.' So, I've been releasing these recordings, Molecular Systematic Music. Some thoughts on that is that there is a recording that completes that series and will be released sometime in the fall, and then there's a follow up to Jesup Wagon.

PA: Oh, great. So you're taking the concepts behind these albums and exploring them a little further?

JBL: Yeah, they're already done.

PA: Okay. You've explored them further.

JBL: Yeah, they're done, they just haven't been released yet. I've been releasing at such a high volume because the older I get, the more I realize how fragile time is. I have something I would like to say and I have to get that out there. In regards to Molecular Systematic Music, that is coming along quite nicely. Basically for people who don't understand what it is, it's a metaphorical system that draws a correlation between molecular biology and music to then build artistic DNA for the purposes of improvisation and creativity, of which I am currently working on my PhD at the University of the Arts, a doctorate of philosophy in creativity. So I've been exploring the system and studying metaphor.

Metaphor is a way to conceptualize and build new realities with preexisting material, preexisting notions of how to think and it's how I've been working for the last 10 years. What has also increased my pace is that I discovered how I learn, and how I study, and what I am interested in, it became less about being something that I'm not. I've really kind of matured into being as opposed to proving.

PA: So would you say that you started the PhD program - and congrats on that, that's a big step – because you were you inspired by your own music to do so? Or was it kind of a separate thing and now you're looking back at your music and thinking about it in a new way?

JBL: Um, no, it's something that was already started in 2011. It went by a different name prior to Molecular Systematic Music. Covid also inspired me to start speaking and writing about my own approaches to music. I have several published articles via Arrowmith Press talking about philosophy and ways of being related to metaphor and Molecular Systematic Music. The PhD is something that I've had thought about for a while, and this program really allows me the latitude and the expansiveness to work on my own system, as opposed to other programs that foster something else. I have a dissertation committee, I do a lot of independent research, and Molecular Systematic Music is really extensive, the study of sign and symbol via Roland Barths and Charles Pierce. And then I'm studying molecular biology, and metaphysics as it relates to intuition, and have several books from Buckminister Fuller and Rudolph Steiner, who also talks about intuition. I think that it's ways of being and I'm just exploring something I've always been interested in, and then it helps to get a PhD to do my research. I think we live in a different age now, where the more documentation you have, the better, because then people are less inclined to -- I mean, they're gonna critique you regardless, but at least it's documented.

PA: Well, I'll be interested in reading the dissertation when it's done.

JBL: Ok, yeah. 2025.

PA: Okay. Very good. So, just a quick question to bring the music to a more practical level. What do the musicians see and work with when you present new music that you write using this system?

JBL: I have not charged them with the task of learning the symbols that I've come up with. They're using western notation. I can put the information in western notation or symbols. I recently got interested in lab notebooks, like what lab notebooks look like and felt very inclined to buy a lab coat. Okay, you know, not to wear on stage, 'cause I know that's already been done.

PA: Right.

JBL: I'm not interested in that at all. But for my own sake, wearing a lab coat as I'm practicing and getting into that mode of understanding and DNA is serving as a metaphor. When I say artistic DNA, it's basically just asking the questions of what makes you who you are. And then systematically defining that via whatever your metaphor is for life. We understand a lot of concepts in life through the use of metaphor and so that's what I'm deeply engaged in right now. It's been exciting, it has been exciting even before I got this stamp from the school. 

The idea of my work, my observations of seeing these two notes coalescing with each other, now I'm adding three notes, and I'm studying the double helix, it's exciting. You know, in science they're using language like 'triplet' or 'double time.' When we start talking about circadian rhythms and about the effect of light on ourselves and what that means as far as time, it's fascinating. They use all these things and draw correlations. I'm always reminded about Leonard Bernstein in The Unanswered Question. He says, the best way to know a thing is in the context of another. That is what metaphor is, basically trying to draw inferences between two separate entities.

So that's what I've been doing. I didn't call it Molecular Systematic Music at first, rather there's a way I'm building the music, and there's a reason why my skillset has changed through this system. If you listen to how I play now, as opposed to when I made Divine Travels, that playing is light years apart. Those are two different players. Same tone, but two different players. Two different, valid conceptions. I don't even practice like that anymore. I don't even remember how I was practicing then. But, so yeah, it's an exciting time period right now for me. I feel very confident. I feel very centered and not in an ego way, just in a very freeing way, like seeing everything as one.

I see more stuff as being one now than I have before in my life. If I'm sitting down and I'm reading, like I was reading the first chapter of the Rule of Metaphor by Paul Ricoeur, and as I'm reading that, I'm saying to myself, there's no anxiety about not picking up my saxophone. No, this too is a part of the saxophone. So, that in itself has been so freeing. I mean, when I was younger, if I wasn't on my horn, -- now, don't get me wrong, I'm on my horn almost every day for hours, but I don't have any anxiety, because I realize that everything is influencing everything. Basically, I got this from Charles Ives. I was reading biography on Charles Ives and it's describing the fact that every day he's going out and selling insurance -- he's actually one of the pioneers or founding fathers of the way insurance is in America, and on top of funding New Music and the New Music Journal, one of those journals that still exists and he barely got to hear his music in his whole lifetime. -- and every day he'd come home, have dinner with his wife, and then he would compose for the rest of the evening. They were asking him, 'Hey, do you ever feel like you're sacrificing something?,' to which he said, 'No, it's all one. When I'm spending time at the office, I sometimes learn more about music from people who are business people than from actual musicians.' Which is the same thing that Bill Evans said in an interview. He said that the layperson is able to understand more because they're not in it as much as the person who is in it. The person who's a musicians is always in the thing, where someone outside of the thing can appreciate it from a totally different perspective. So I think that that I'm at a beautiful place in my life where I know how to use my time wisely.

I pick up my horn and I think, 'okay, I need to do some long tones,' or I gotta do this other thing. Because I've created my own system, the onus of learning the system and practicing it is on me. The pressure is from me, it's not outside of me. This is where stuff used to get annoying, you know, I'm practicing all this stuff that basically had nothing to do with my own thought process or my own analytical abilities, but basically just copying and learning how someone else is processing information. I spent a large part of my life doing that and I retired from doing that a long time ago. When I discovered how I learned, which was basically in 2006 after I graduated from undergrad, it took me all that time to realize that the way that I learned, nobody taught me that in school.

Your first week of school, first your first three weeks of school, when you're an undergrad, in my opinion, someone has to say, 'well, how would you like to revamp education?' The first week, first three weeks, first month, you know what we're doing? I'm having the kids analyze and figure out how they study, how do they learn. How they are processing information. Then, once you figure that out, then we'll get to all the other stuff. But if you don't know how to study, you don't know how your brain processes information and you're ultimately only getting spoon fed the same way of learning that -- I grew up with an educator, my mom taught and I never once saw her teach a kid the same way. She knew how to teach one topic five or six different ways. Now that's how you educate. That's what I would do. So anyway, when I figured out how I learned, which is basically fragments, smaller amounts of information, cells, microlearning, then that's when I rocketed out of this realm.

PA: Well, probably a little bit of that groundwork is necessary in order for you to be able to know how you learn. If you actually asked some students, "how do you learn?" They'll probably say, "oh, I don't know." I don't think that you necessarily have that insight as an undergrad and you probably need to go through a little bit of what you don't like in order to figure out what you do like.

JBL: You know what? I actually agree with you, but I think that the problem is that when you're not exposed to two ways of learning, you don't even know it's possible.

PA: Yeah, sure.

JBL: I've been in certain situations ... when I was in my early twenties, where the only time an African American was mentioned as having contributed to avant garde music is when we were playing a traditional piece, what people deem as a traditional jazz piece, and they said, "oh, you made a mistake." I said, "no, I didn't make a mistake." "Oh well this isn't such and such band. This is x, y, z." But see, this is the thing. If you never know what is possible, because the people who are teaching you are inept, then you spend your whole life being boxed into a situation because no one ever shined the lamp on you and said, "Hey, here's another way." Your brain is not even thinking about the possibility of another way.

PA: Sure.

JBL: So then you're, you're just in the nebulous land. You're in this nebulous thing. I think the first time when I was in my early twenties, the first time I heard an Ornette Coleman recording, I felt robbed. I said, "wow, this is another way of thinking." This is somebody who no one ever talked about. They weren't talking about Ornette Coleman when I was a kid in Buffalo. Not at school, not at public school. They weren't talking about Ornette when I went to Howard. I was fortunate, when I met Charlie Haden, when I went to CalArts, I was blessed. I felt like, I felt like, "wow." That's how I felt. "Wow." This is amazing, man. 

PA: Do you, do you see yourself ever taking on that role? Teaching perhaps?

JBL: Indoctrinating people?

PA: No, un-doctrinating people. The Anti-doctrination.

JBL: Yeah. The anti-doctrination. You know what, I am not opposed to it. I think I'm open to the possibility of that. However, I think it's the same thing with when someone asks me about Molecular Systematic Music, would you ever want to teach someone your system? No, I don't think I do. But I do in the sense philosophically. I would love for someone to walk away and say, "what is my version of this?" Not, "I should do this." Nobody needs that, and that's Wadada used to teach me when I was at CalArts. He'd say, when you're composing, what problem are you trying to solve? And then we'd study, we'd listen to different examples. We'd study Tupac, we'd study Billy Holiday, Thelonius Monk and Michael Jackson. Then he'd ask us what is the unique moment? As he would call it. What is the thing that happens in the music that doesn't happen anywhere else?

That's argument with 'Giant Steps.' That was Coltrane’s thing. Only John can play it. No one has ever played 'Giant Steps' better than John Coltrane. No one. Because he came up with it. So then, what is your version of that? What is your - I'll never forget. When I was at the University of Denver for a semester and um, this pianist Eric Gunnison -- who's from Buffalo. I think he played with Carmen McRea -- he used to have us in class. We'd analyze for example John Coltrane pieces and different people and he'd say, "now I want you to go home and make whatever your version of what we just experienced is. Don't copy that version. Figure out what is your, what is your equivalent to this? What are you wrestling with? What progression are you wrestling with? Or what formula can you create from these principles, from these guiding principles."

And so I never forgot stuff like that in all my years of taking school and learning. There's this one thing that I can do on sax and basically was an etude. I wrote an etude for myself. Now I can play that way because I wrote an etude, this real application to play this piece over and over again.

PA: You just spoke about studying with or studying the work of, important musicians and composers. Are there any people, any musicians that you'd like to perform with still?

JBL: It's not something I think about often, I think I get called by the people that I want to work with. I work with William (Parker). When he calls me, I'm there. I just was at the Stone recently with Ches Smith. I work with Chad Taylor a lot. I work with the people that I want to work with. If tomorrow Jason Moran called me ... or, let me tell you about a group that was supposed to happen. I almost had the opportunity to play with Han Bennink. It got canceled because of Covid, but it was going to be me, him, and Shabaka (Hutchings). It would be nice to play with him. I'm up for working with anybody as long as they allow me to be myself.

PA: So, thank you. I'm glad I asked you the question of what I didn't ask you <laugh>. That went a whole other wonderful way, so I really appreciate that.

JBL: For sure. Actually, hopefully we can print all that, that'd be good. Give people something to think about, talk about.

PA: Oh, I think the Free Jazz Blog is a place to put something like this. Free jazz, free talk. Again, thank you, it was a real pleasure to speak with you.

JBL: Thank you. Likewise.

Eye of I comes out February 3rd on ANTI records.


Anonymous said...

GREAT interview! Lots of details in this that haven’t read from James elsewhere. Looking forward to hearing Eye of I in full.