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James Brandon Lewis on finding the road least traveled / Capitalbop interview

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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.