There is a lot of very cool and brilliant saxophone artistry in creative music these days, whether it leans toward the slippery, smart style of Mark Turner or the dazzling, brightly expressive sound of Michael Brecker. It’s no put-down to say, however, that a stylist like James Brandon Lewis is a welcome respite. Lewis has all the cool moves and technique you could desire, but his sound and approach owes more to Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, David Murray, and George Adams—he plays his horn and imagines his music with a broad sweep of vibrato, a wider conception of history, and a variegated sound landscape.
Despite his jazz education at Howard University and then Cal Arts, Lewis first made his name as a saxophonist operating in contemporary gospel music around Denver, so his expressive range and connected-to-the-earth sound have other causes and inputs than just Coltrane and Rollins. That his sophomore release, 2014’s Divine Travels, explicitly took on spiritual standards such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Wade in the Water” with the help of an A+ jazz rhythm section of bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver outlines Lewis’s approach quite well.
Jesup Wagon inaugurates a new band that further amalgamates Lewis’ associations and ideas. Conceived as a portrait of the African-American scientist and thinker George Washington Carver, this album features Lewis’ tenor saxophone paired with cornetist Kirk Knuffke—also an eclectic New York player with Colorado roots—as well as Parker on bass, frequent duet partner Chad Taylor on drums, and the intriguing addition of the cellist Chris Hoffman, who has been playing with Henry Threadgill’s group.
The result has reach and variation: lyricism, folk forms that echo Ornette Coleman, no fear of harmonic freedom, simple grooves and complex forms in cross-hatching, and expressive individual voices that also operate with huge ears from every player. You hear all of this quite clearly, for example, on “Chemurgy”, which features a pensive melody that is initially stated in duet by the horns at a felt tempo. The two voices quaver together in unison and harmony, with Knuffke’s cooly flexible tone sounding like a slice of fruit paired with the emotional vibrato of the leader’s piquant tenor. The rhythm section enters in a polyrhythmic clatter, with Parker playing a circular figure over Taylor’s chattering hand percussion, hi-hat, and toms—and finally, Hoffman plucking a low counter-melody.
The two strings, together with the melody of Taylor’s kit, sound like a throbbing kalimba, pulsing like—yes—a wagon rolling down the road. Lewis solos using both the theme and a blues tonality, and then Knuffke joins so that he and Lewis are collectively improvising in a telepathic back-and-forth. Soon Taylor’s cymbals and the two strings are fully in on the conversation as well—motifs, phrases, ideas rebounding and sparking like pachinko balls. The improvised exchanges take place not over a set of chord changes but on top of the groove and informed by the intervals and feeling of the theme—leading to honks and moans and sweet purrs of beauty all the same.
The thrum of the band is set up by Lewis’s solo introduction to the first, title track. His saxophone is pure but also highly vocal, cracking by design at times, honking down low to generate a bass line, throbbing in pulses that could be drums. The track “Jesup Wagon” also conjures the motion of one of the mule-powered vehicles used by the Tuskegee Institute’s Movable School program, with Parker’s clattering and rolling push and the strings loping along, suggesting plucked rural guitar strings. The leader’s daring tenor solo, however, goes well beyond the pastoral, wailing with Coltrane energy, accompanied only by percussion. It is bracing and deep in the blues. An equally powerful collision of rural imagery and African rhythmic practice is conjured on “Lowlands of Sorrow”, with Parker sliding over the three-stringed gimbri and the horns continuing to testify.
Loping triple rhythms are a great tool for this band. “Seer” gives the horns a set of toggling or gently rising licks that float over a dancing 9/8 feel. It sounds like a cowboy rhythm, with the saddlebags of the mule clanking as it pulls the carriage along. Taylor accompanies on a mallet instrument as the strings play the repeated rhythm pattern—an atmosphere that inspires the horns to serve up their gentlest playing on the date. “Arachis”, by contrast, is a ballad with a slow/stately theme from the horns and an arco line from the cello that eventually leads to the wildest playing on Jesup Wagon—we get to hear Lewis fly outward like Ayler or David S. Ware, brute-force brashness meshing with his sure intonation over Taylor rolls and explosions. Knuffke joins him and takes a cooler ride, though still one of harmonic adventure, before the Parker/Taylor rhythm section gets its best featured moment on the record.
If the full sweep of Jesup Wagon sounds like a dish with too many strong flavors, then listeners should check out “Fallen Flowers”, with its consonant and peppy horn melody, its bouncing triple meter, and its inspired pairing of a bowed cello line and funky bass line. The mood and method of the whole album is here in the form of a toe-tapper. But then, in the final third, the tempo evaporates to allow an impressionistic collective improvisation. That last third becomes the performance’s highlight, with every musician is still playing the theme in some way, just with a great sense of openness and feeling. It is almost as if the tune were planned to get you hooked and then to prove to you that a bit more freedom from the “snappy” part truly pays off in the end.
There are other saxophonists in creative music right now who are playing with some of the broad expressionist style that Lewis has mastered. Shabaka Hutchings, the British player who helms Sons of Kemet, and Californian Kamasi Washington both use a big, raw sound that Lewis leans toward. But, of those three, James Brandon Lewis seems the most daring and the least boxed in by one particular association or stylistic vision. The gospel impulse of Lewis’s playing is always there in his horn, but not in how he imagines his band or his compositions. He seems the most unpredictable and multidirectional saxophonist of 2021—as that wooly, fat tone and sound does so much more than cry in ecstasy—it purrs and laughs, it sings pretty songs and grumbles, it breaks the rules and blends perfectly with a front-line partner too.
Just like George Washington Carver, James Brandon Lewis is more than one thing, and the stories he is telling on Jesup Wagon cover lots of ground. You can follow him anywhere.