Even for an artist hailed by Ebony Magazine as one of "7 Young Players to Watch" who has studied with jazz heavyweights like Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Douglas, Joshua Redman, and Matthew Shipp, it takes considerable confidence and courage for a young musician to match wits with veteran improvisers like William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. But on his second release, Divine Travels, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis does just that, not only holding his own with that masterful rhythm section but leading them down fresh and unexpected pathways.
Divine Travels melds the holy spirit of a gospel service with the fiery expression of free jazz, the intuitive dialogue of skilled improvisers with the stunning invention of a first meeting. Lewis' music draws in equal parts on his considerable studies and his roots in the church, as well as his considerable curiosity to discover more and deeper connections within his music.
Parker and Cleaver have a long history together, having co-founded the collective trio Farmers By Nature with pianist Craig Taborn and played together with artists like Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp, and Joe Morris. And both have worked with some of modern jazz's greatest saxophonists: Parker with David S. Ware, Peter Brötzmann, and John Zorn, Cleaver with Roscoe Mitchell and Tim Berne.
Lewis calls the prospect of stepping into such esteemed shoes "a humbling experience." It was demanding for me to keep my composure and to really be honest with myself in that scenario. How do I go into this session and not think about everyone that these two gentlemen have worked with in the past? I truly respect them to the nth degree, but I had to be honest and give who I am as a person, to be vulnerable to however the recording was going to come out. And I think that I left an impression, just like they left a huge impression on my being."
Lewis' unique stamp can be heard throughout Divine Travels, which results in Parker and Cleaver revealing new facets in their own strongly individual voices. Fragments of gospel melodies emerge and evoke starkly spiritual meditations in tunes like "Wading Child in the Motherless Water," which weaves together the familiar melodies of "Wade in the Water" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." But even when not explicitly referencing such traditional fare, Lewis shows a predilection for direct, memorable folk-like melodies that he can then develop, evolve and explore.
The album also contains two collaborations with poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, who Lewis has been working with since the two met at a residency in 2011. The Brooklyn-based poet recites works from two of his books, Skin, Inc., and The Maverick Room, which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award in 2005.
The title Divine Travels pays homage to Lewis' belief that the music contained within is an expression of his own spiritual journey, marking both distance traveled and experiences yet to unfold.
Lewis' own travels began in Buffalo, New York in 1983. Lewis was raised in the church, which formed the core of the saxophonist's spiritual outlook. While many musicians are inspired by the church, Lewis says that its most important impact was not musical but personal, laying the foundation for his creative approach.
After graduating from the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, Lewis attended Howard University, where he studied with Charlie Young, performed with the likes of Benny Golson, Geri Allen, and Wallace Roney, and backed John Legend, k.d. lang, and Vanessa Williams at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble.
In 2006, Lewis moved to Colorado and pursued a career in gospel music, working with Grammy® Award-winning singer Dorinda Clark Cole and the late "Queen of Gospel Music," Albertina Walker. He relocated again to earn his Masters at CalArts, where he was mentored by Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Vinny Golia, and Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson, who later hired Lewis to play in his ensemble.
Lewis released his debut album, Moments, in 2010, before moving to New York City in 2012. Since arriving in the city, he has performed with a wide range of artists, including Charles Gayle, Ed Shuller, Kirk Knuffke, Jason Hwang , Marilyn Crispell, Ken Filiano, Cooper Moore, Darius Jones, Eri Yamamoto, Federico Ughi, Kenny Wessel, Marvin "Bugalu" Smith, and Sabir Mateen, and has worked with the dance company CircuitDebris under the direction of Mersiha Mesihovic. He currently leads his own trio with Luke Stewart on bass and Dominic Fragman on drums.
Days of FreeMan - Jamaaladeen Tacuma talks with James Brandon Lewis
James Brandon Lewis & Aruan Ortiz - Justice is Compassion / Arts for Art - Jan 9 2018
Visionary composer and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis's bravest, yet most palpable artistic feat, opens with a poignant and profound introductory monologue from a maternal sage. She says: "The best thing of living is living who you are. You can't be somebody else; you gotta be what God gave you to be and who you are. You look in the mirror and see yourself and say ‘I'm James Brandon Lewis."' Next, bass and drums congeal around the sapphire melodic motif of "Brother 1976," recalling one of those jazzy jewel-like hooks from a 1990s Native Tongue hip-hop jam. The effect is like 1990s hip-hop's fascination with jazz being spit back by a prodigious jazz innovator. Welcome to Days Of FreeMan (OKeh).
7 NEW 30 Total
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Even though it's relatively early in the year, there's a lot of invigorating new music to pique the interest of anyone open to the newest developments in jazz. Expect a couple of the following releases to be listed among the best of 2019. This is an exciting time to be a follower of the music, so you might want to invite some of these sounds into your life.
James Brandon Lewis is on a hot streak of releasing exhilarating albums. The tenor saxophonist delivers "An UnRuly Manifesto" (Relative Pitch) which he dedicates to "Surrealism & Ornette Coleman & Charlie Haden." Any music fan who enjoys those topics will find a lot to take pleasure in here. There are moments of twisting funk, sophisticated melodies, jumping free jazz, and an abundance of Lewis' terrific tenor, which seems to split the difference between Sonny Rollins and Pharoah Sanders. Trumpeter Jamie Branch adds intelligent power to the proceedings, and this quintet sounds like a keeper.
And more: The Bad Plus (with new pianist Orrin Evans) plays Dazzle Feb. 24. … It's the Uptown Jazz Orchestra at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 26. … Chicago's high-energy Lowdown Brass Band hits Dazzle March 5 for Fat Tuesday. … Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez team up at the Lakewood Cultural Center on March 9.
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Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis combines funky rhythms and avant-garde textures on a track from his new album 'An UnRuly Manifesto.' There's no easy shorthand for James Brandon Lewis' musical M.O. Ever since his early releases - 2010's Moments, 2014's Divine Travels - the saxophonist has balanced a deep, gospel-informed spirituality with free-jazz abandon and hard-hitting funk-meets–hip-hop underpinnings.
"Sir Real Denard," a track from his new album An UnRuly Manifesto, shows how adept he's become at bridging different approaches. On one hand, it's a fierce rhythmic workout driven by the tireless bass-drums team of Luke Stewart and drummer Warren "Trae" Crudup III, both of whom also appeared on Lewis' 2016 effort No Filter; on the other, it's a platform for some heady, avant-leaning improv from the leader, guitarist Anthony Pirog (who turned up on a couple No Filter tracks and also works with Fugazi offshoot the Messthetics) and trumpeter Jaimie Branch. PHOTO: Diane Allford
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Some of the most trusted names in jazz and a host of innovative young disrupters brought cross-media collaborations and fresh approaches to the genre. The New York Times 'Best Jazz of 2018 includes;
8. James Brandon Lewis/Chad Taylor, ‘Radiant Imprints'
On this duo album, James Brandon Lewis honors John Coltrane by isolating parts of his compositions, diving into the source material with strident, ennobled conviction. Whether charging on the drum set or playing the hypnotic mbira, Chad Taylor knows where to find Mr. Lewis at his best. GETTY IMAGES
20. Cécile McLorin Salvant, ‘The Window'
The reigning jazz vocalist of her generation is an intellectual virtuoso, an examiner of songs rather than simply an inhabitant of them. Accompanied by the pianist Sullivan Fortner, Cecile McLorin Salvant trains her magnifying glass on a range of tunes here: midcentury jazz, chanson, Aretha Franklin.
Poetry and jazz aren't strange bedfellows. Amiri Baraka regularly performed with jazz accompaniment at Bohemian Caverns. Rarely has a collective of multiple poets and musicians taken to D.C. stages in recent years, however - and even in more distant years there surely weren't many concerts like the one Heroes Are Gang Leaders put on at Blues Alley on Tuesday night. It was something like poetry and jazz as directed by Spike Lee.
"This is, let's say, literary free jazz," poet and co-founder Thomas Sayers Ellis said as he and nine other people filled the bandstand. A very soft soul groove took shape, courtesy of guitarist Brandon Moses, bassist Luke Stewart, pianist Jenna Camille and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis.
"Good morning, Blues Alley!" exclaimed vocalist Crystal Good, just as trumpeter Heru Shabaka-Ra joined in. "Happy birthday!"
READ THE FULL Washington Post ARTICLE
NPR Music is pleased to present the results of a poll where 147 jazz critics selected their favorite recordings of 2015.
For 10 consecutive years, this poll has been a labor of love by eminent critic Francis Davis. It's grown tremendously since he initially submitted the consensus of 30 writers to The Village Voice in 2006. Over the last month, print journalists, bloggers and broadcasters nominated more than 700 different albums. We're thrilled to host his exhaustive project on our site.
James Brandon Lewis - Days of FreeMan Picked for Best of 2015 NPR Jazz Critics Poll
There is depth to tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis' music. Lewis' previous project, Divine Travels (2014) focused on spirituality, with some other minor themes. That album showed Lewis' maturity as composer and performer, and on his third effort, the hour-long Days of FreeMan, Lewis continues his escalation of ideas, themes, performance, composition, improvisation and creativity. Days of FreeMan covers a lot of background information and thoughts, from childhood memories to ancestral history; and from the relationship between seemingly disparate musical genres (rock, hip-hop, jazz, classical and more) to astronomy. Anyone interested in hearing a summary of Days of FreeMan should listen to a 6-minute video promo available online.
An important thematic element Lewis investigates is the confluence of jazz and hip-hop music. Lewis is a product the latter part of the 20th century. He grew up with contemporary jazz, gospel and hip-hop. The urban music permeated him and is now entrenched. Lewis' approach on Days of FreeMan is unique. Rather than incorporating rap/hip-hop components into jazz, or forcing jazz into a hip-hop/rap basis, Lewis melds both into a distinct mélange that is 100% jazz, but which implicitly refers to hip-hop rhythms, beats, nomenclature and ingredients. In a way, Lewis' music is heading toward the intensity and deepness of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. READ THE FULL Audiophile Audition REVIEW
Visionary composer and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis's bravest, yet most palpable artistic feat, opens with a poignant and profound introductory monologue from a maternal sage. She says: "The best thing of living is living who you are. You can't be somebody else; you gotta be what God gave you to be and who you are. You look in the mirror and see yourself and say ‘I'm James Brandon Lewis."' Next, bass and drums congeal around the sapphire melodic motif of "Brother 1976," recalling one of those jazzy jewel-like hooks from a 1990s Native Tongue hip-hop jam. The effect is like 1990s hip-hop's fascination with jazz being spit back by a prodigious jazz innovator. Welcome to Days Of FreeMan.
Lewis's previous disc, "Divine Travels," wasn't necessarily polite, nor is his new one particularly rude. But compared to one another, it sure feels that way, meaning that the jazz saxophonist is currently going after something dryer and funkier, sleeves rolled up, head down. SEE THE Washington Post PAGE
There are those who would say that the third CD of composer/tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, Days Of FreeMan, is not jazz. I would remind those naysayers that in the 1940s, Dizzy Gillespie was accused of the same thing. When asked why his jazz wasn't swing, he'd invariably confound interviewers by saying, "I don't play jazz. I play bebop."
On Days Of FreeMan (named after the street he grew up on in Buffalo, New York), Lewis takes his longtime fascination with hip-hop and weaves it into a four-chapter autobiography: 1) "Buffalo Braves" (the NBA team that ultimately moved to Los Angeles and become the Clippers), 2) "Good Ol' Golden Days" (of rap, that is, block parties with local DJs playing Pete Rock & CL Smoth next to Tribe Called Quest), 3) "Continuum" (where he recycles one of his heroes, Don Cherry [1936-1995] who helped radicalize jazz with Ornette Coleman) and 4) "Planetary Movement" (James Brown riffs by way of '90s group Digable Planets). The spoken-word wisdom of his grandmother is sampled throughout like a Greek Chorus. Drummer Rudy Royston provides the percussion vocabulary. Forget omnipresent jazz-groove drumming in this release. Royston did his homework, laboring extensively with Lewis over 1990s hip-hop jams to get the feel, the textures and the wicked backbeats down pat. Now all they needed was an empathetic bassist. READ THE FULL Classicalite ARTICLE
On July 25, the day after OKeh Records released James Brandon Lewis' sophomore album, Days Of FreeMan, the tenor saxophonist delivered a blistering set at Washington, D.C.'s Bohemian Caverns.
His performance underscored a new shift in his thematic focus. Whereas Lewis' 2014 disc, Divine Travels, centered on gospel themes and a free-jazz aesthetic, the new disc finds him reinvestigating early to mid-'90s hip-hop, the soundtrack of his youth.
At Bohemian Caverns, Lewis' music still retained its sense of exploration, unearthing hip-hop signifiers more reverential than referential. Songs like "Brother 1976" and "Days Of FreeMan" tingled with the rhythmic thrust of hip-hop's golden age. But the compositions were treated with an arresting, unapologetic abstraction.
On his new disc, Lewis is joined by the esteemed rhythm team of drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. However, these sidemen did not appear with him at Bohemian Caverns. Instead, Lewis received admirable support from bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren "Trae" Crudup III. Lewis has a connection to these fine D.C.-based musicians, having played with them while he was a student at Howard University. READ THE FULL Downbeat ARTICLE
"I didn't grow up a hip-hop head," says James Brandon Lewis, "but where I grew up in Buffalo, New York, on Freeman Street, the sound of hip-hop was ubiquitous. I decided to go back and explore that time through music."
Don't look now but the most spectacular marriage of jazz and hip-hop yet just came from an utterly extraordinary young tenor saxophonist from Buffalo who, quite frankly, makes Robert Glasper seem anemic and academic.
He's been living and working in New York for years but "Days of Freeman" is an extraordinary musical autobiography of growing up in Buffalo where Lewis remembers "times being filled with nicknames, block parties, street football and my older brother being the ‘deejay' of the household while my mom would be yelling ‘turn that crap down.' "
Here is a musical memoir in four chapters, whose first chapter is called "Buffalo Braves." It's a formidable musical memoir in which we hear, all through it, tiny snippets of Lewis' grandmother philosophizing and reminiscing about hearing Mahalia Jackson in her church and being free in her life because she was taught how to love by her parents.
There are references to Wilson, N.Y., where "my family would fish and have fun times there." We're told in the publicity for "Days of Freeman" that the saxophonist poured over "hip-hop documentaries for up to eight hours a day" and dissected "albums by KRS-One, Digable Planets, Pete Rock and CL Smmoth, a Tribe Called Quest, Medeski, Martin and Wood, along with fearless jazz trumpeter Don Cherry's 1985 album ‘Home Boy' and Lauren Hill's 1998 Masterpiece ‘Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.' "
This is an utterly extraordinary disc – magnificently ambitious and completely achieved because of Lewis' most important musical partners – drummer Rudy Royston and, most important of all, the late Ornette Coleman's phenomenal bassist in his prime time band Jamaaladeen Tacuma.
Even if it's semantic news to listeners that, as Lewis says, " ‘You know my steez' is a common phrase in hip-hop referring to style, to be, to be yourself, your swag, your person, your vibe, your flow, the way you operate and function," Lewis' formidable playing in a pianoless trio over Tacuma and Royston seems, as does the whole disc, to take off from Sonny Rollins and edge out into the nearer regions of the two ferocious Davids, Murray and Ware.
James Brandon Lewis "Days of Freeman" gets Four stars from The Buffalo News. READ THE FULL REVIEW
A one-time gospel saxophonist turns free jazz, weaving together two spirituals while caught up in the Holy Ghost trance. James Brandon Lewis' performance of Wading Child in the Motherless Water from his album, Divine Travels, is featured on NPR Music's list of 50 Favorite Songs of 2014 (So Far).
Can a focused mind wander? Can a peaceful person do battle? Contrasts and unlikely associations seem to guide the young saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, perhaps none more than this one: How does complication and murkiness help you access something simple-even elemental?
Lewis, 30, was raised playing jazz and gospel in Buffalo, N.Y., then educated at Howard University and the California Institute of the Arts. With a sound that reaches out, touches firmly, then pulls away, he seems accustomed to following his convictions on a beeline, even when they lead into the thicket.
What I'm angling at here is that things sometimes get choppy on Divine Travels, Lewis' new album and his first on a major label, but they never throw you overboard. The record casts an imposing shadow-it features William Parker on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, two of the most storied free improvisers around, and finds Lewis in wrangling, stippled interplay with the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis on two tracks. But it doesn't let go of you, partly because Cleaver plays the drums like Abdullah Ibrahim plays piano, laying out a bed of tone and topography rather than overemphasizing his punctuation marks. And partly because Lewis is big on consolidating impulses: He makes sense of all his reference points (classic gospel, mid-period John Coltrane, Dewey Redman) by draping his improvisations around minor-key structures. They give your ear context, and a home base.
Lewis performs at Blues Alley this Thursday with a different trio: Dominic Fragman on drums and Luke Stewart (also an editor for CapitalBop) on drums. Lewis and I spoke via phone earlier this month about his time as an undergraduate here in D.C., his collaboration with Ellis (a D.C. native and former go-go singer), and the dedication to openness that informs his approach. READ THE FULL Capitalbop INTERVIEW.
Quite tonal (and tuneful), Divine Travels is nonetheless free jazz. It's the major-label debut of tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, quite a departure from the R&B earthiness of 2011's self-released Moments. Two masters of the avant-garde, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver, join Lewis here for 10 experiments with improvisation in melody, groove and texture. The results are excellent.
Like Ornette Coleman, Lewis is a proponent of rich themes, whether in composition or improvisation. "Desensitized" comprises two alternating sax themes, a few notes repeated ad infinitum (with a minimum of variation) while Parker and Cleaver follow and embellish with inspired synergy. Meanwhile, on the closing "Travels," Lewis begins with a "do-re-mi" vamp that soon develops into more elaborate phrases and recitatives (until ending with a reprise of "Divine," the theme that begins the disc). The long centerpiece, "Wading Child in the Motherless Water," interweaves the melodies of the spirituals "Motherless Child" and "Wade in the Water." It's a cerebral undertaking, but not to the sacrifice of those songs' beauty or depth of feeling; to the contrary, Lewis reinforces it with the grittiness of his tenor sound.
But his thematics don't always lead the way. He spins short figures on "Tradition" as comments for Cleaver's crisp, melodic drum solo, and ones on "Enclosed" that are setups for Parker to respond and counterpoint. His full-on improvisation on "No Wooden Nickels" is really just window dressing for Parker and Cleaver's cha-cha groove-which goes on and on, in the best way possible.
The album has one irritating quirk: Almost every track ends in a fade. The effect is of a string of non-resolutions. Even so, Divine Travels is the work of a promising new voice.
Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis takes us on a spiritual journey on his sophomore release, the aptly named Divine Travels. Over the course of Lewis' ten original compositions, which add up to 67 minutes, the NYC-based Lewis traverses a path which combines elements of free or avant-garde jazz, post-bop and the kind of auditory terrain which John Coltrane navigated toward the end of his career. On Divine Travels, Lewis weds his gospel and jazz background into a cohesive manner: he tried to do the same on his debut, 2010's Moments, but here the music and his intent coalesces and gels. READ THE FULL Audiophile Audition REVIEW.
James Brandon Lewis' inspired recording Divine Travels follows what would appear to be a series of bluesy, apocalyptic shouts and masterful honking following what is a long and deeply felt epiphany. That the revelation comes in the form of a mighty musical expedition is fortuitous as it reveals Mr. Lewis to me not only a deep and spiritual soul, which is really something lacking in musicians today, with the possible exception of Pharoah Sanders and the ever brilliant JD Allen.
READ THE FULL Jazz Da Gama REVIEW
An auspicious major label debut for saxophonist James Brandon Lewis on - Divine Travels for an unpretentious bluesy jazz recording. Lewis, a thirty-something tenor saxophone phenom chose to record here in trio without the safety net of a pianist or accompanying horn. READ THE FULL All About Jazz REVIEW.