Monday, April 8, 2019

feature story: James Brandon Lewis



NYC Jazz Record – April 2018

James Brandon Lewis

By John Pietaro

Catching James Brandon Lewis between tours and local dates is a challenge. Playing Europe with Thomas Sayers Ellis and their jazz/poetry ensemble Heroes Are Gang Leaders, as well as Chad Taylor, he returned stateside to perform with Craig Harris and visual artist Carrie Mae Weems. But the saxophonist is also hitting stages with his quintet, debuting material from the critically-acclaimed Unruly Manifesto. “I’ve been fortunate to have played with a lot of elders and many others in this thing we call free jazz”, he stated pensively. “You must have humility in music. Some of the greats are among the most humble people I’ve known. I respect their journeys, their lives and commitment and am lucky enough to be embraced in return”.

Lewis, at 35, remains sufficiently spry to maintain the “young lion” status attributed him by those elders, yet he’s increasingly viewed as a galvanizing force. His career highlights have been substantial enough for most working artists, but with each passing year there comes an expanse of Lewis’ presence as a saxophonist, composer, activist and conceptualist. To many, he stands among the torch-bearers in a long line of tenor giants.

Hailing from Buffalo, NY, James Brandon Lewis has lived, worked and studied on three coasts, performing globally, though as he put it, his career only truly began in 2012 with relocation to New York City. It’s been a fortuitous and well-earned ride. “My Mom saw my love for music when I was very young”, Lewis said. “At age 9 I began playing clarinet as a student at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts”. Lewis thrived in his studies, and encouragement came both academically and at home. “I went to concerts each weekend with my Mom, classical and jazz. And my uncle gave me subscriptions to Downbeat and Jazz Times which I read every month. My bedroom was like a jazz museum, filled with posters, CDs and books”.

By age 12 Lewis had moved onto alto saxophone. “I had been listening to Charlie Parker so taking on the alto was very intimidating! Charlie Parker All-Stars recordings were my major influence” and the initial model for the budding musician. However, when the school band fell short of one tenor saxophonist, Lewis was called on to take the chair. “And then I started listening to Coltrane”, he added, laughing.

Upon graduation from the Academy, Lewis was accepted at Berklee, but resources were short and he was forced to study locally. “I was not getting the nourishment of musicians that were better than me. I’d come from a gifted and talented school, so knew I needed a kick to move to the next step”. Pianist Brandon Felder was then studying at Howard University and referred Lewis to that celebrated school. “My father had attended a historic Black college, but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. Yet when Brandon spoke about the amazing legacy of Howard and its jazz program, I rushed home to get my audition tape”, he explained. The program was based in creativity and discipline. “Howard was very conservatory-like, but very cool. Grady Tate was on faculty and Donald Byrd and many other legends would come on campus. I traveled abroad for the first time with the Howard Jazz Orchestra. And we also played behind KD Lang and Vanessa Williams at the Kennedy Center Honors.”

Graduating in 2006, Lewis spent the next 2 ½ years in Colorado with his father, a minister. Always philosophic, this immersion brought the saxophonist into a deeper spirituality. “I was playing gospel and hymns full time in churches and also playing jazz in clubs.” The roots of the music became steadily present in Lewis’ horn and perception. However, in 2008, he became a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts where everything changed. “At Cal Arts I was off to the races”, he said. “Charlie Haden and Wadada Leo Smith were teaching there. James Newton. Alphonso Johnson. John Lindberg was there too. I learned about Charles Ives and Harry Partch, the intricacies of the AACM, the California scene and this amazing school’s history. A whole other continuum that I never knew was possible. It was off the chain!” The experience led to Lewis’ first album as a leader, the independent Moments. Following 2010 graduation, he was drawn to Florida’s Atlanta Center for the Arts, where Matthew Shipp was artist-in-residence. “It was a beautiful experience. I studied with him for a condensed three weeks. Matt was the first to ask me to play with just bass and drums and I recognized how free music can be.” Shipp encouraged Lewis to move to New York, suggesting he record with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. “I laughed because they didn’t know who I was. But he reached out to them.” Divine Travels was recorded in 2011 during a single 6-hour session but sat idle for over two years.

After relocating, Lewis encountered downtown dignitaries Darius Jones, Marc Ribot, Craig Harris, Will Connell and the Arts for Art community. “Roy Campbell first took me to the Vanguard”. By 2014 the newly revived OKeh label released Divine Travels “after it was turned down by everyone.” And he hasn’t looked back. Collaborations with Hamiett Bluiett, Jimmy Heath, Anthony Coleman, Joe Lovano, Ken Filiano, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Hamid Drake, Aruan Ortiz, Ribot, Harris, Parker, Harriet Tubman and his own ensembles offer something of Lewis’ musical foray. It culminates with Unruly Manifesto, an album dedicated to Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and concepts of surrealism. “Someone recently told me the album is relentless, but a manifesto is a charge, a declaration. And I also like coded statements, like the African American quilting tradition.” The recording is a compelling, masterful spectrum of sound and emotion with trumpeter Jamie Branch, guitarist Anthony Pirog, bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren Crudup III, the strongest band the saxophonist has thus far fronted.

“I’ve been in this city for 7 years and pride myself on how to enter a room. I relocated not to discover myself but to be nourished by the community. My greatest tool has been saying thank you”





CD review: Mike Baggetta, "Wall of Flowers"


NYC Jazz Record – March 2019
Wall of Flowers, Mike Baggetta/Mike Watt/Jim Keltner (Big Ego Records, 2019)

CD review by John Pietaro

When was the last time artfully improvisational music laced with irony and post-punk bite felt so good? Maybe 1988, possibly never. Guitarist Mike Baggetta has a uniquely stark sound, one that revels in surf and spy as much as Trane and Dolphy, the avant garde as meaningfully as lamentations. For Wall of Flowers he calls on Mike Watt, best known for iconic ‘80s band the Minutemen, but whose stalking, primal basslines have also propelled Firehose, Sonic Youth, Dos, proto-punk quartet the Stooges and celebrated guitarist Nels Cline. And in a choice that demonstrates Baggetta’s more “straight” side, legendary session musician Jim Keltner completes the trio. The drummer’s performances on stage or record extend from John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Delaney & Bonnie, George Harrison and Harry Nilsson to Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, bassist Jack Bruce, guitar heroes Richard Thompson and Neil Young and a wealth of others. This inside/outside boundary constructs a fantasy foray into generations of sounds.
“Hospital Song” opens, following an atmospheric intro, and quickly establishes the tenor of the collection. Compelling instrumental rock raises the specter of the early ‘60s and its edgy resurgence a generation later, and Baggetta’s overdubbed guitar lines are an immediate, delicious draw. This flailing nostalgia begat two versions of “Blue Velvet”, the genteel 1950s standard made famous by Bobby Vinton. Its delightfully unsettling presence here, particularly in the duet version with Keltner, recalls the corruption of innocence central to David Lynch’s film. But Wall of Flowers is about much more than memories, cherished and/or distorted. Baggetta sings and moans on his ax, pulling out pensive, torn phrases enlivened by repetitions, dark arpeggios and a twang bar thicket. It becomes clear why Nels Cline dubbed Baggetta a “guitar poet”.

Album highlights include “Dirty Smell of Dying”, a free music rave-up that brings out the best in all three musicians. Here, Keltner draws on the jazz chops that makes his rock drumming so masterful, a perfect antagonist for the leader’s pained, searching improvisation. However, it is the title cut that illuminates the magic of Baggetta’s emotive, driving, long tones, Watt’s mean, metallic pulsations and Keltner’s shimmering, throbbing commentary. In a field of numerous celebrated contenders, this Mike Baggetta ensemble is already the guitar trio of the year.  

Credits: Mike Baggetta: guitars, Mike Watt: bass, Jim Keltner: drums
“Hospital Song” (intro)/ “Hospital Song”/”Blue Velvet” (solo)/”I am Not a Data Point”/”Of Breads and Rivers”/”Dirty Smell of Dying”/”Blue Velvet” (duo)/”Wall of Flowers”


CD review: GREEN DOME, Thinking in Stitches

NYC Jazz Record – May 2019 GREEN DOME, Thinking in Stitches (Case Study, 2019) CD review by John Pietaro Zeena Parkins...