The tenor saxophonist, composer, and writer James Brandon Lewis was recently voted Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist by Downbeat magazine’s 2020s International Critics poll. That sounds good—polls always do—but upon listening, it’s apparent: no imitation happening here. Lewis brings a crisp boundless perspective to the jazz sea. His sounds are a congregation of colorful tones jumping from traditional to the outer galaxy but anchored in a spirituality that hugs the soul similar to Coltrane’s rhythmic praises or Paroah Sanders’ spirited hymn recording “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”
Most recently at the Jazztopad Festival, at Dizzy’s jazz club, Lewis embarked on another aspect of the music performing with the Lutosławski Quartet, one of the leading string quartets in Poland. Since 2007, they have been active as a resident ensemble of the National Forum of Music in Wrocław, playing classical and contemporary music. The Quartet included: 1st violinist Szymon Krzeszowiec (guest musician); 2nd violinist Marcin Markowicz; Artur Rozmysłowicz on viola; and cellist Maciej Młodawski came together with their guest Lewis for the United States premiere of his commissioned work (by the Jazztopad Festival) “These Are Soulful Days.” It is a masterpiece with moving genres of classical meets spirituals meets jazz meets blues. The strings were the undercurrent like a strong wind before the hurricane, at times smooth as a summer breeze, while Lewis’ deep tones (reminiscent of Dexter Gordon) danced in and out sometimes with avant garde hollers, melodic spiritual riffs in the midst of showering strings, blues melodies flowing in some tenor sax funk.
The music left the audience spellbound, as they shouted for more with a standing ovation. Lewis’ commissioned work combines facets of music that seldom unite. The composer’s spiritual core was instilled by his father, a minister.
At the end of the performance Lewis informed the audience, “Writing this composition for jazz and classical strings wasn’t easy. But when they asked me to do it, I was up for the challenge. I’m glad it all worked out.” Later as a side bar he laughingly stated, “I had to add a little funk to keep it happening.’’
Lewis was commissioned to write this piece for strings that was scheduled to debut in Poland, but the pandemic hit. “Wadada [Leo Smith] had encouraged me to compose something for strings and it reappeared with this commission. I had a year to write it,” said Lewis. “I tried to put my foot in it, checking out classical composers like Brahms, Mozart and Stravinsky. It was a real challenge navigating all the writing parts but it was a great experience.” Lewis and the Lutosławski Quartet originally premiered the piece in Poland earlier this year in October. “It was very well received,” said the composer. “The string quartet taught me a lot about myself; my melodic abilities are deep inside my soul.”
In New York City Lewis has a high profile as a musician, music activist and intellectualist on the lower east side where the avant garde set is high velocity. There seems to be an invisible political jazz fence that doesn’t allow avant garde cats uptown although lately Dizzy’s seems to be attempting to open its door very cautiously. Ironically, it’s not the jazz clubs but the trombonist, composer and arranger, Craig Harris, who presents the musicians at his weekly Harlem jazz series.
“I don’t worry about labels because it bogs me down, there is too much history going on,” says Lewis. “I want to have multiple things happening. I am just building on what I know.’’ The saxophonist has recorded 10 albums and is working to release another three before the end of the year. “I have a lot of things in the hopper,” he said. “I can’t wait to put out stuff. Maybe I got it from Wadada [one of his mentors who helped him develop his individual musical voice].”
The Buffalo native leads four working groups all pinned under his name: his trio featuring cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Max jaffe; his now touring quartet with pianist Aruan Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Chad Taylor that released “Code of Being” (Intakt Records 2021); and his Red Lily Quintet featuring cornet Kirk Knuffke, bassist/gimbri William Parker, cello Chris Hoffman and drummer Chad Taylor. The James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet released “Jesup Wagon,” his debut on Toa Forms (2021). He celebrates the life of agricultural scientist, inventor and artist George Washington Carver. In an effort to help Black farmers, Carver invented the Jesup wagon, a kind of mobile (horse-drawn) classroom and laboratory used to demonstrate soil techniques and share farming information. Lewis was a serious student of Carver partly due to his mother being a science and math teacher. “I like to work with a lot of different people, I get bored easy,” stated Lewis during our phone interview.
The self-titled tune “Jesup Wagon” opens with Lewis’ sax shoutin and moanin before Taylor converses on drums, they all come together in a somber moment. The music reflects Carver’s great accomplishments through solos, improvisations and blues melodies with intense repetitive chords acknowledging the difficult, often cruel times of segregation and Jim Crow laws in motion. “It’s a shame people only know about Carver’s success with the peanut, he’s contributed so much more,” said Lewis. “I never lose sight of spirituality in the context of nature.”
“Jesup Wagon” is a conceptual project of Black history unfolding into a creative musicianship that reflects such influential recordings as Wadada Leo Smith’s “Ten Freedom Summers,” one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music (Cuneiform 2012), Henry Threadgill’s Pulitzer Prize winner for music “In For a Penny, In for a Pound” (Pi 2015), as well J.D. Allen’s “Barracoon” (Savant 2019), Craig Harris’ “Brown Butterfly” (Aquastra Music 2019) and Adrian Younge’s “The American Negro” (Jazz Is Dead 2021).
Playing and composing on the fringes, Lewis often incorporates other genres of music and sometimes takes to out-of-the-box instrumentation. In 2014 he and poet, photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis co-founded Heroes Are Gang Leaders as a tribute to the late poet, playwright, author and activist Amiri Baraka. After four CDs HAGL has become a platform for revolutionary verse set to fiery out jazz (the group’s name is the title of a poem from “Tales by LeRoi Jones,” Grove Press 1967). Their current album is “Artificial Happiness Button” (2020). The band carries on in the tradition of Baraka’s bands Word Music and Blue Ark.
“When I was a junior in high school, a senior was graduating so I took over his chair playing tenor sax,” explained Lewis. “I did some research on John Coltrane and fell in love with that tenor voice. I love the history of the instrument…tenor for life! I’m just trying to represent my city, Buffalo.”
This was my first time to the Village Vanguard since the pandemic, a two-year absence. Upon opening the well-known red door and venturing down the very narrow staircase there was a big burst of joy. The prodigal jazz son had returned home. Fond memories in the storied club recalled seeing Hank Jones work his piano magic or the nights the Clark Terry Quartet performed with a young teenager playing drums. On this night that young teenager Marcus Gilmore, now a young man and established drummer, was making his debut as a leader. The Marcus Gilmore Trio featured pianist David Virelles and bassist Rashaan Carter. “We want to have fun and mix it up with everything we are doing separately,” said Gilmore. “Yes, we plan on recording. I keep forgetting this is my debut as a leader but it feels good and I am honored.”
This configuration is an all-star line-up; they are composers and bandleaders in their own right, having toured the world extensively. They are a collaborative force known on both the avant garde and straight-ahead scenes with Virelles, a native of Cuba also influential on the Latin scene. “I am happy to be a part of this incredible group, I think we all have a lot to offer,” noted Virelles. They are on the verge of redefining trio form, originally set in motion by Trio3, which featured bassist Reggie Workman, saxophonist Oliver Lake and drummer Andrew Cyrille.
The trio played originals and little-known gems to a packed house. Gilmore has mastered the brushes and foot-pedal swinging like someone doing a hip soft shoe act. On Fats Waller’s tune “Wailin” the trio was in high gear, weaving rhythms together in motion, taking solos, never overbearing. Carter has a deep melodic voice that glows. Virelles inserts colorful AfroCuban percussive melodies with classical phrases adding a different swing to the mix of Gilmore and Carter’s traditional and avant garde take-offs.
“This is a special collective, we come with experiences to share along with all the great history of the music,” said Carter. “It’s great to be working with musicians from my generation.”