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Saturday, November 4, 2023

James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet - For Mahalia, With Love (Tao-Forms, 2023)

By Martin Schray

Mahalia Jackson was the link between Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues“ and Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul“. Although Jackson was certainly not a blues woman (she considered the blues to be “songs of despair“), her music is nevertheless rooted in the blues. Jackson’s music was always gospel and spirituals, which she considered “songs of hope“. It was her merit to take gospel out of the church. Performing it on the national stage, where it was heard far beyond its African-American community of origin, connects her to Aretha Franklin, whose Soul was popular among white audiences as well. What is more, for Jackson music always had a socio-political component. She said she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country," as the New York Times wrote in their obituary in 1972.

Mahalia Jackson’s music is now at the center of James Brandon Lewis’s new Red Lily Quintet album, making it the highly anticipated follow-up to the sensational Jesup Wagon, which focused on another important African-American figure, George Washington Carver. But Mahalia Jackson is also personally important to Brandon Lewis because his grandmother loved her music, which is how Lewis experienced it in his childhood. His grandmother even says she received Jackson’s singing like a bolt from above. In the liner notes, Lewis says the album is more than a tribute, it’s “really a three-way conversation between Mahalia, my grandmother and me.“ In fact, it’s more of a big discussion between Jackson, his grandmother, Lewis on saxophone, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, William Parker on bass, Chris Hoffman on cello and Chad Taylor on drums.

The difficulty for the band was to transform Jackson’s songs into contemporary jazz and, in some cases, even into free jazz forms. For the introductions of the tracks they use different approaches here. Either Lewis stays quite close to the melody of the original and Knuffke and Parker deliver a gritty drone (“Sparrow“, “Calvary“), Lewis introduces solo (“Swing Low“), Lewis and Knuffke circle each other (“Go Down Moses“, “Elijah Rock“, “Were You There“) or play in unison (“Wade in the Water“, “Deep River“, “Precious Lord“). What all the pieces have in common, however, is that they sound considerably more somber than the originals; Lewis doesn’t seem to see the hopeful message that Jackson saw in the gospels that way. Instead, the songs on For Mahalia, With Love are repeatedly broken up, led into the improvisational jungle, and then brought back again. This is most evident right away in the opener “Sparrow“ and in “Calvary“, as is the gloomy atmosphere for which Chris Hoffman in particular is responsible.

Lewis says about Jackson and her music that it “is important to be seen rather than liked or disliked because a presence moves past subjectivity.” He did not make the album to receive positive critique, but as a comment on what is going on particularly in the US at the moment. “She was beloved by everyone,” Lewis continues. “She transcended race lines and division, which translated to the power of her voice to transcend the subjective. She broke down barriers.” Like Jackson, Lewis makes no compromises if it comes to his music. In this aspect, he reminds me a lot of the young Archie Shepp. Like the great tenor saxophonist, Lewis seems to like it when his music swings. Soul and passion seem to be Black matters for him - unmistakable, not repeatable. Because the music is free. Like Shepp’s music Lewis’s is also angry, it has a strong emotional note. However, you can always hear that he stands in the tradition of great swing saxophonists. That’s why he has his unique tone that echoes in the gut, this combination of rough and soft tones, with different registers, volume levels and hard vibrato. For the listeners there is no doubt: this is James Brandon Lewis playing.

For Mahalia, With Love is available on double vinyl, as a CD and as a download.

You can listen to parts of the album and buy it here:


Stuart Broomer said...

There's a companion piece to this session called "These Are Soulful Days", Lewis's extended suite for tenor saxophone and string quartet recorded in Poland with the Lutoslawski String Quartet and employing two of the Jackson Songs in its materials. It's quite reflective and beautiful and very much a companion piece. If you buy the two-LP set you get a download code. If you buy the two-CD set (described as a "limited first edition") you get it as a second CD in the gateload sleeve. If you purchase the download code, you don't get access. My own review of the two-CD set, limited to 240-words for a print publication, "The WholeNote", includes a concluding mention of the suite: "The limited first edition CD comes with an additional CD, These Are Soulful Days, Lewis’ eight-part composition for his tenor saxophone and string quartet, performed with the Lutosławski Quartet of Poland. It’s a lucid work imbued with the spirit of gospel music ('Wade in the Water' emerges at one point). Its spacious melodic clarity suggests the compositions of another American master, Virgil Thomson."

Nick Ostrum said...

Martin, great review and, Stuart, I am glad you brought up the companion piece. I just spun both discs for the first time a few days ago and they are both so moving, albeit in different ways. Although For Mahalia might hit the hardest viscerally (I agree with Martin that these are more somber takes on Jackson's music, and for that all the stronger), These are Soulful Days was a truly welcome surprise. Lewis's arrangements and compositions have real range.