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Saturday, March 30, 2024

James Brandon Lewis – Transfiguration (Intakt, 2024) *****

By Don Phipps

One might think that tenor saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis would need to recharge his musical batteries. After all, his albums Eye of I and For Mahalia, With Love topped many critics best of 2023 jazz lists. But Transfiguration most certainly will add to his accolades. The album is a turbulent sea of emotions brought forth by Lewis’s compositional dexterity and the amazing virtuosity of both he and his bandmates, Aruán Ortiz on piano, Brad Jones on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums.

While at times feverish, Lewis’s sax playing is always tuneful and full throated. His energetic and powerful solos, improvisations and developments never cease to captivate the listener. And one must simply marvel at his compositional skill. Take the opening number, “Transfiguration.” There’s an almost Latin flavor to the composition – one that is menacing, dark and powerful. On “Trinity of Creative Self,” the lines methodically climb to higher and higher intensity. “Swerve” is an abstract funk. “Per 6” generates the feeling of a car cruising at speed around curves. “Black Apollo” uses a robotic line in an odd time meter to create a dark foreboding. “Empirical Perception” feels like riding in a careening subway car – being pushed and pulled as it makes its way through dark tunnels. “Triptych” offers a driving syncopation. And last but not least, “Elan Vital” gives the sensation of sunrise in a forest of tall trees – the light exploding everywhere in long effervescent streams.

Of course, all of this emotional intensity is greatly aided by the outstanding efforts of his sidemen and the moments where they step forward and create their own unique contributions. For example, Ortiz offers up modal bluesy abstractions on “Triptych” and “Per 6” that have distant echoes of McCoy Tyner, and his clever fingerings throughout the album command attention. Jones offers solid bass lines, and his work on “Per 6” is especially noteworthy - with dynamic and challenging upper register bass plucks that explode like fireworks. And Taylor’s rim shots, cymbal work, and drumming never fail to emphasize the musical themes or funky bluesy lines of the various compositions. There are even times when one can hear the influence of Ed Blackwell’s West African drumming style in his playing.

All of this may lead to questions like “Is Lewis the new Coltrane?” or “Is this what Coltrane would sound like if he were in jazz today?” But such questions can be quickly dismissed. Lewis is a force in jazz that must be appreciated in the here and now. And one should be grateful and happy to be alive to hear it!