A lot of jazz saxophonists strive to sound spiritual but for James Brandon Lewis, that’s part of who he’s always been. Having grown up listening to gospel music and later pursuing a career in that genre, such things come second hand to him. On the other side of things, he studied under such forward-thinking jazz stars as Wadada Leo Smith, Charlie Haden, Dave Douglas, Matthew Shipp and Vinny Golia. And all of those things inform Lewis’ pending second album Divine Travels.
A lot of faith has been invested into this relative newcomer: Sony affiliate Okeh signed up this indie artist for his sophomore project and he’s being backed by only a bass and drums. Moreover, that rhythm section is being manned by elite players William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. Divine Travels is faith requited.
The natural ease with which Lewis expresses himself comes immediately into focus on “Divine,” an opening track where it’s only him and, sparingly, Parker. His big wide, soulful tone and thoughtful delivery sets the tone for the rest of the record. When Cleaver enters on the following track “Desensitized,” it’s astonishing how he and Parker are so tight together even knowing that they’ve previously joined forces for so many performances. But what’s even more amazing is how effortlessly Lewis inserts himself in that mix while articulating an eccentric but hypnotic figure, and everyone is discreetly deconstructing it over the course of the song.
Echoes of gospel can be found on every one of these set of Lewis originals, but it’s most obvious in his imaginative mash-up of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Wade In The Water.” Lewis seems to be looking for and finding the notes with the biggest emotional impact on this hybrid he calls “Wading Child in the Motherless Water,” and Cleaver’s nuanced, sensitive drumming is way sublime.
For a couple of tracks, Lewis enlists the poetry of Thomas Sayers Ellis. “The Preacher’s Baptist Beat” is notable not just because of the recital, which is a mixture of a sermon and beat poetry, but the musicians who play alongside the poet and not so much behind him. Other notable performances include “Tradition,” because Lewis uses jazz tradition as the foundation for his avant stylings that fly in a wide orbit around that blues-based figure. Parker’s up and down bass shape forms foundation for “No Wooden Nickels,” during which Lewis plays soul stirring elongated notes and Cleaver metes out a sweet African groove.
In the company of living legends, Brandon James Lewis articulates a big sound and deftly reconciles the worlds of the spiritual and the cerebral. There’s every reason to believe that this is only the beginning for him.
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‘Divine Travels’ will be available on February 4 via Okeh Records. Visit James Brandon Lewis’ website for more information.