James Brandon Lewis 2024
Photo: Intakt Records

James Brandon Lewis Sounds Singular on ‘Transfiguration’

Among the considerable pleasures of the new James Brandon Lewis quartet record is how it insists on expanding how we think about the leader himself.

James Brandon Lewis
16 February 2024

The sound of a musician is their signature and their center. In American music, you aren’t much until you have one of your own, and it’s abundantly clear that tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis owns an instantly recognizable sound that is blossoming into one of the most commanding forces in creative music.

Lewis’ new album features his quartet, including Aruan Ortiz on piano, Brad Jones (from the Jazz Passengers) on bass, and drummer Chad Taylor, a frequent collaborator beyond this group. The same band released the strong album Molecular in 2020, Code of Being the following year, and a live version of the Molecular tunes in 2021. But the new quartet outing follows an intervening string of recordings that have vaulted Lewis to the very top realm.

Jesup Wagon introduced a new band (the “Red Lily Quintet”) in 2021, and it proved to be one of the best recordings of that year — an ideal combination of intricate arrangement, unabashed melody, gospel-blues guts, and bold emotion. In early 2023, Lewis returned to a (mostly) trio format, but he used Christopher Hoffman’s cello (from the Red Lily Quintet) in a growling combination with electronics. Then, before the year was out, For Mahalia, With Love was released — with one disc having the Red Lily Quintet play gospel tunes associated with Mahalia Jackson with expansive glory and another disc comprising a breathtaking suite for saxophone and string quartet.

Can it be that Lewis, back again with his quartet on Transfiguration, is releasing a third masterpiece in a quick 12-month period?

“Swerve” is a strong example of how James Brandon Lewis creates a compelling kind of complexity — the kind built from small bits of powerful clarity. The performance opens with a funky repeating bass line, to which a highly unusual but unfussy drum pattern is added in counterpoint. A written piano part enters as another interlocking melody that moves in a circle around the other elements. Lewis comes in on tenor with yet another tune that threads around the other three — a fourth very simple part that becomes another cycling piece of the — now intricate —whole. Once all four musicians have locked into the groove, of course, they are each given the freedom to vary their simple patterns, turning the full performance into a kaleidoscope of improvisation from a set of gorgeous small gestures.

“Triptych” features a toe-tapping bass-drum groove that uses a measure or two of unusual meter to cross up your brain even as your bottom is swaying. The melody, played in jagged octaves by Lewis and Ortiz, could almost have come from a searing jazz-rock album of the 1970s. Then, we are treated to virtuosic solos from each instrument that never lose the thread of the slipper rhythm. The concept of “three” is also explored in “Per 6”, a composition that uses a rolling triple meter (6/8, or two sets of three) to refract a Coltrane-style meditation on just a pair of chords, and then the exploratory ballad “Trinity of the Creative Self”, a long feature for the leader as he develops an extended improvisation with superb structure and development.

Among my favorite sequences on Transfiguration is the airy piano solo on “Black Apollo”. Ortiz has a thousand tricks up his sleeve as a pianist, but the ones he explores here are texture and patience. Rarely does he take off on a linear improvisation that we might hear from a horn player. Rather, he develops chordal and melodic cells that invite the rest of the quartet to interject accompaniment. Then, he plays a melodic line built from the assemblage of related gestures (repeated notes, bebop licks that detour through dissonance, chord clusters, and call-and-response figures), which also spurs the quartet to play along with him.

I know that comparisons to John Coltrane‘s classic quartet with McCoy Tyner‘s piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums can be tiring and facile. But Transfiguration is so good that it compels the reference. Chad Taylor uses rolling polyrhythms to make many of the performances (“Empirical Perception” most of all) Elvin-ish in the way that the drums are constantly in conversation with whoever is “soloing”. In the same tune, Ortiz plays a rolling, roiling solo that updates the sound of Tyner/Jones to include the expressive abstractions of pianist Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor. At their best, the Coltrane quartet was a door opening to possibility rather than a singly-conceived and locked-in style.

Among the considerable pleasures of the new James Brandon Lewis record is how it insists on expanding how we think about the leader himself. With his Red Lily Quintet, Lewis connects us to his facility for gospel music and how he highlights certain influences on the horn — notably Pharaoh Sanders and David Murray. In his duets with Taylor (Live in Willisau), Lewis is capable of bouncing his own identity off of contemporaries such as Mark Turner (“Come Sunday”) or ancestors like Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins (“Under-Over the Rainbow”). This is not to suggest that Lewis does not do style hops, and he always has a personal sound, but he can express his singular sound in myriad ways and flirt with the rich history of the music he builds upon.

On Transfiguration, it is appropriate that an advanced quartet record should reveal a fluency with the language of Coltrane’s legendary band. However, older music is a reference, not a prison, as James Brandon Lewis continues to develop a singular sound and potently modern conception of American creative music.

RATING 9 / 10