James Brandon Lewis: All Becomes One

by Troy Collins

James Brandon Lewis, © Antonio Porcar

A rising presence on the scene, New York-based tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has received accolades from The New York Times, NPR, and countless other news outlets for his disciplined ability to combine myriad stylistic influences into a singularly expressive approach. Sonny Rollins told Jazz Magazine that Lewis is a “promising young player with the potential to do great things having listened to the Elders.” Lewis’ appreciation for the innovations of masters like Rollins, Coltrane, and Ayler is readily apparent in his melodic conflation of gospel, blues, R&B, modal jazz, and avant garde influences. Lewis was also recently voted Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist in Downbeat Magazine’s 2020 International Jazz Critic’s Poll.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Lewis was raised in the church. He attended the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts and continued his studies at Howard University, where he worked with Geri Allen, Benny Golson, Bill Pierce, and Wallace Roney. After graduating, Lewis moved to Colorado where he joined the gospel music community, performing with Albertina Walker. He then attended CalArts, receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree after studying with Vinny Golia, Charlie Haden, Alphonso Johnson, and Wadada Leo Smith. A stint at the Banf Jazz Residency found him working with Dave Douglas, Tony Malaby, Joshua Redman, Hank Roberts, and Angelica Sanchez. Lewis eventually relocated to New York City in 2012.

Lewis has released several critically acclaimed albums, leads numerous ensembles, and is the co-founder of American Book Award-winning poetry and music ensemble Heroes Are Gang Leaders. Moments, his debut album, was independently released in 2010. In marked contrast, Sony Masterworks’ revived OKeh imprint issued Lewis’ Divine Travels with bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver in 2014. The following year, the major label put out the concept album Days Of FreeMan, featuring Lewis at the helm of a trio featuring bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Rudy Royston. In 2018, Lewis and drummer Chad Taylor released the improvised Radiant Imprints on Belgium’s Off label. The following year, Lewis recorded An UnRuly Manifesto for Relative Pitch Records, leading a quintet that included trumpeter Jaimie Branch, guitarist Anthony Pirog, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Warren G. Crudup III. Intakt released Lewis and Taylor’s concert performance at Switzerland’s annual jazz festival as Live In Willisau in 2020, as well as Molecular, a studio quartet date with pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones, and Taylor on drums, which premiered Lewis’ new compositional strategy, “Molecular Systematic Music.”

Although unable to tour in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis wrote a suite of compositions inspired by the life and work of George Washington Carver. In the fall of 2020, he assembled the intergenerational Red Lily Quintet – Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Chris Hoffman on cello, Parker on bass, and Taylor on drums – to record while socially distanced at Park West Studios in Brooklyn. Named after Carver’s first vehicle used in the Tuskegee Institute’s Movable School program, in the liner notes for Jesup Wagon author Robin D. G. Kelley states that “... Lewis has composed a body of work that captures the essence of Carver’s life, work, and vision ... Lewis peels back the facade of the old, kindly man conjuring up new uses for peanuts, to reveal the artist, botanist, ecologist, aesthete, musician, teacher, and seer who anticipated our current planetary crisis.” Jesup Wagon was released by Whit Dickey’s Tao Forms label in the spring of 2021. I interviewed Lewis that summer.




Troy Collins: Some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

James Brandon Lewis: Buffalo Born (1983), I am proud of where I am from – an eclectic mix of all kinds of music: jazz, funk, rock, soul, etc. It’s a groove town: Charles Gayle to Grover Washington Jr., Soulive, Goo Goo Dolls, Juini Booth, so many others ... Jazz at Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo Science Museum, Colored Musicians Club, and Pine Grill Jazz Reunion, etc.

My mom would expose me to these places, as a lover of music and art. Traded a dog for a sax (a friend of my dad’s): alto sax at 12, clarinet at 9. Charlie Parker was my first influence – but I was intimidated, not inspired – until later. I heard a work ethic and fluidity at the highest level. Eventually, I got inspired once I realized it’s all about working hard to find the truest version of yourself, every day.

I have always had an emotional connection to music – first from experiencing music in church to being fascinated with movie soundtracks. And my mom took notice. I was learning songs by ear around 8 years of age off the radio, movies, commercials, etc. I remember when Mr. Holland’s Opus came out, I remember being fascinated with the clarinet melody the teacher was teaching the upstart student.

TC: There is a great deal of stylistic variety in your burgeoning discography, with each album representing a different aspect of your artistry. It’s apparent that you find a great deal of inspiration for your music outside of the art form itself. For example, Jesup Wagon, your dedication to the innovative work of George Washington Carver, is more vernacular and folk-based than Molecular, which is far more abstract, influenced as it is by molecular biology and the double helix structures of DNA as metaphors for the fundamentals of music theory. So, I wonder, how important do you feel is it for listeners to understand the non-musical inspirations behind your various projects?

JBL: I think it’s important for listeners to be open to the possibilities of music being informed by life experience, by things that inspire artists to create, and maybe they will ponder the curiosity of the artist and ask themselves “I wonder why he chose this tune, or that title to represent this subject matter?” And sometimes the listener is expected to just experience an offering, nothing more or less – an offering, an intimate moment of pure honesty with no motive other than to be my most authentic self, for the listener to maybe get to know me a little more. In creating I always need a goal, a subject matter, something that draws inspiration outward then inward. I always refer to Leonard Bernstein saying, “The best way to know a thing is in the context of another discipline.”

My admiration for George Washington Carver stems from his ability to correlate matters of nature with that of spirituality or even artwork, etc. I think the audience may care about what’s informing the artist, but I don’t want to play about love if I've never been in love. Fortunately, I have been, so I would think that would translate sonically because sound is a form of communication. I often think of old school TV – when a dream sequence would happen, to aid the sequence, the music underneath would be a whole tone scale. The audience would know that a dream was about to happen because the music helped communicate that.

TC: Can you give us some background on how each of these recent but very different recordings came to be?

JBL: In 2011 I started to develop a system of improvisation and composition entitled Molecular Systematic Music. At the time, it went by a different name, but the first buddings of this system (which is just the way I am choosing to organize information) came from studying improvisations of myself and I began to study the recordings to map the things I heard that maybe spoke to the type of person I am musically. I ended up being a finalist for a Creative Capital Grant later on, so I knew maybe I was on to something, but I also just trusted my own voice to make the decisions.

Later, in 2018-19, I was improvising with my quartet on one of my pieces and soon realized there was some circular movement in my playing, and in my mind's eye I began to correlate that with a double helix – my love for science was always there since I was a kid and the direction of biology seemed natural (molecular biology), and I began to once again make correlations with music. Four basic chemicals that make up all living things with that of four basic harmonic environments: major, minor, augmented, diminished, etc. ... and informing myself not only with folks like James D. Watson and Gilbert N. Lewis, but abstract painters such as Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten.

My interest in George Washington Carver just stemmed from my love of him as a kid and now as an adult further peeling back those layers to get to more depth of who he was.

My love for the duo recording Red & Black by Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell, as well as Chad Taylor’s love for that recording, sparked our own duo and further cemented our dedication to the depth of exploration of the duo format.

TC: You obviously share a spiritual connection to Carver’s creative approach in the way that you’ve built a conceptual world for your art that incorporates an interest in poetry, science, and history as the foundation of your own music. Therefore, getting renowned American historian Robin D. G. Kelley to write the liner notes for Jesup Wagon is quite a coup – how did that transpire?

JBL: Unbeknownst to many, Robin D. G. Kelley and I have known each other for years; he became a supporter of my work after my 2016 trio album No filter (BNS Sessions). It sparked a mutual appreciation for each other’s work, and I also became inspired by a surrealist anthology he worked on entitled Black Brown and Beige, which then inspired my album Unruly Manifesto (Relative Pitch, 2019).

In reference to the poetry included on the albums, my introduction to the art of poetry began in 2011 collaborating with poet Thomas Sayers Ellis. We went on to then form American Book award winning ensemble (2018 Oral Literature) Heroes Are Gang Leaders after Amiri Baraka died. So, I started my own journey with poetry and felt the need over different albums to expose some of my own writing experiments, as I feel I am not a poet but someone who dabbles. It has been important to me over the years to incorporate all of who I am and becoming into all my work. Writing is not separate from music nor from science nor from my relationship with the creator, all becomes one.

TC: A conversation with a friend brought up the topic that if Carver's work is being re-evaluated now, it might be because of Adrian Marie Brown’s Emergent Strategy. As an organizer who works with social justice groups using a set of principles inspired by the science fiction of Octavia Butler (the intersectionality of pleasure, healing, personal growth, community, and social justice), Brown’s approach is not dissimilar to your creative interpretation of Carver’s multidisciplinary work. Do you feel a kinship with this methodology?

JBL: I will have to exam Adrian Marie Brown’s Emergent Strategy. I’m humbled by the comparison, thanks for the heads up – I am always up for learning. I feel a kinship with the examination of one’s own lived experience and using people such as Carver and others as guides to understanding your own relationship with your artistic self. I often read about folks from the past to give me the strength to handle things that they might have also encountered. I also like to respond to things that are happening around me through titles and leave something for the young people to decode. I don’t always like to lean on the literal but on code.

TC: William Parker is prominently featured on Jesup Wagon and was also on your debut album for a major label, Divine Travels (OKeh, 2011). In the interim, between these sessions, I believe you have performed with Parker in a number of configurations (Organ Quartet, Mayan Space Station, In Order To Survive, etc.) As a renowned renaissance man, what have you learned in your time working with Parker?

JBL: William Parker. Wow, I can’t say enough about his influence in my life! He lives who he is in any situation. I have learned to put maximum intent in everything, he has the ultimate intent in everything he does. He is always working, always creating, always asking humanity to do better and be better, and that’s inspiring to me. I am thankful to have worked with him.

TC: Chad Taylor is also a frequent collaborator of yours. Can you talk about how you first met and what you feel he brings to your work?

JBL: I first saw Chad Taylor playing with Cooper-Moore in maybe 2014. Anyway, we began collaborating after I did arrangements of Coltrane tunes for a solo saxophone marathon in Philly some time ago, and then decided to use those arrangements for our duo, which we recorded as our first album Radiant Imprints (Off, 2018). Chad has a high level of melodic lines via the drums and it inspires me. Also, his use of mbira adds to his overall artistry in very dynamic ways. His versatility in knowing many musical genres allows me to draw from multiple influences within my own experience, giving me ultimate freedom.

TC: The jazz bands of a previous era featured long-term personnel for extended tours, but that has largely changed today, for various reasons, both aesthetic and economic. What advantages and challenges do you personally find in maintaining so many different groups?

JBL: The advantage of having many different groups is it keeps me on my toes to constantly create different music, explore different sounds and approaches to composition. Scheduling is always the biggest issue, making sure everyone is available. This age brings about uncertainty in the practice space as well, like how comfortable do people feel in a confined area?

TC: As a composer, do you write parts with specific players in mind, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes are open to interpretation by different groups of players? And regarding such interpretations, how do the personal and/or stylistic dynamics of individual band members shape the inner workings of those groups?

JBL: As a composer, every project is different – sometimes the melodies spark which players should be used, other times players spark the sounds, and every group has a different sound. I also try to build every composition where there’s ultimate freedom for the player to bring who they are to the piece, as opposed to a strict set of rules – sometimes that’s the case, but rarely. I tend to want to hear what players are at home working on outside of my piece when they begin to improvise on a selection of mine, adding to the layers of what I did not write within the composition.

TC: Although your compositions and improvising are quite adventurous, you seem to prefer a more structured approach; most of your writing is melodic, whereas quite a few of your contemporaries tend to compose far more abstruse themes. How do you balance the disparity between freedom and form, both in your writing and improvising?

JBL: My goal always is to present the most authentic version of myself. I don’t view my compositions in terms of strict structures. I have always had a natural affinity for melody, a naturalness that rarely ever tries to be complex or structured but allows melodies to enter my mind and soul and then be a vessel for them to speak. Freedom is speaking musically without restraint and humbling oneself to allow the music to take over. I also enjoy a playful dance between form and freedom and the result of that – via the audience – to give a little and take a little. As artist Paul Klee wrote on this subject matter, “Compromise of relaxed and rigid rhythm results in hybrid forms.”

TC: Considering your ability to navigate multiple styles in an array of different ensembles, are there any aspects of the jazz tradition that you currently find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

JBL: I enjoy jazz as a continuum, meaning it’s all inspiring. I don’t find any practices constraining; however, I thoroughly enjoy freedom within music and that’s up to the individual how free they want to take the music.

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

JBL: I enjoy studio performance as a piece of artwork: preserving methods, possibilities, sounds, etc. … the act of documenting progress or regression.

Playing live seems to me to be more intense than in the studio. Playing live requires a different relationship with time. I feel like my mind is in flight or fight mode, whereas in the studio I feel relaxed – there is a level of intent required, but just it feels a bit more relaxed than a live performance. All situations require me reaching for who I am and presenting honesty.

TC: In the same line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially regarding archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

JBL: I think there is a desire for physical objects. I think people are becoming bored with only steaming, that’s why vinyl has had a resurgence, it’s also why I wanted to emphasize liner notes again with Jesup Wagon – that’s a part of the music experience. It’s the experiencing of going to the record store that I miss.

TC: In conclusion, the inevitable question is how have you been handling the pandemic and what projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

JBL: In October, a follow up to Molecular by the James Brandon Lewis Quartet entitled Code of Being, featuring Chad Taylor, Brad Jones, and Aruan Ortiz. Future projects include a solo album, and another Red Lily Quintet album.


© 2021 Troy Collins

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