NYC Jazz Record – April 2018
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”