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James Brandon Lewis: An Unruly Manifesto

Phillip Woolever By

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James Brandon Lewis has been climbing the current jazz pantheon for a good while now. This deserving project should elevate the 36-year old tenor saxophonist from Buffalo even higher in the ranks.

Backed by the usual collaborators in his touring trio (drummer Warren Trae Crudup III, bassist Luke Stewart) and a pair of familiar guests, Lewis has crafted another fine testimony to his dynamic skill and progressive vision.

An abbreviated cascade of cymbals preludes the opening designation as guitarist Anthony Pirog weaves subtle, hypnotic chords while Jaimie Branch's trumpet constructs a solid brass foundation for Lewis' initial solo.

Some sequences may cryptically conjure the layered, Coltrane-like crescendos Kamasi Washington seized on during his breakthrough a few years back. However, it doesn't take much listening to understand that this epic is Lewis' exclusive domain, and that a mainstream breakthrough of his own is also warranted.

Technical production (mastered by Paul Wickliffe) clarifies how effective Crudup is as he lays down some serious skin in anchoring Lewis's dynamic tenor runs, as Branch's trumpet follows up with tasty accents that provide climactic grandeur to the twelve minute title treat.

Along with Ornette Coleman and surrealism, the record is pronouncedly dedicated to Charlie Haden, so it seems quite fitting there are plenty of motifs in which Stewart's bass stands out. "Pillar 1: A Joyful Acceptance" is comprised of a deep groove, while "Sir Real Denard" features a rollicking bottom line underneath its no remorse, dash-dot-dot code of refreshingly repetitive meters, racing along funk street with the top down.

"Haden is Beauty" is a fitting tribute and an abstract, polyrhythmic anthem that swings with a subdued baseline from which the rest of the tune seems to blossom, as if those swaying foundational notes were self-nurturing seeds. It's easy to visualize the gentle smile Haden sometimes displayed while he played. That calm precedes a swelling storm of subtle shredding by Pirog.

Interposed throughout some tracks there are three brief, symbolically titled "pillars" which serve as segues. Even clocking in at well under a minute each, they indicate the breadth of Lewis' thought process and promise incubating, undeveloped ideas yet to come.

There is nothing gentle about "Escape Nostalgic Prisons." It is a frantically scrambled big band bash, as Lewis wields a Samson-like sax to bring those pillars crashing down around any complacent ears. The song is a fine-tuned frenzy that accurately reflects the cutting improvised edge displayed during Lewis' recent European tour, which gained wide-eyed accolades and set bloggers begging for more.

"The Eleventh Hour" is a calmer cruise, with percolating guitar spirals and a few more sprinkling horns that verify just how strong a band has gathered here. The rampaging rhythm section is in all-star territory, and Branch stretches out on trumpet before Lewis ices the cake with another tour de force solo run.

Over the course of history, variously renowned manifestos have challenged conventional norms across many artistic or political fronts. Lewis' poetic liner notes illustrate his aim to "reject controlled freedoms for a breathing walk of a living sound." In case there are any questions, the working strategy is defined as "kick punch smack up a prison guard of notes."

To summarize a complicated offering in simple terms, the "unruly" statement rules. It may be a while (and a few more recordings) before Lewis is categorized in his discipline alongside how milestone provocateurs like Karl Marx or Andre Breton are in theirs, but with this thunderous pronouncement, he's well on his way.

Track Listing: Year 59: Insurgent Imagination; An Unruly Manifesto; Pillar 1: A Joyful Acceptance; Sir Real Denard; The Eleventh Hour; Pillar 2: What is Harmony; Escape Nostalgic Prisons; Haden Is Beauty; Pillar 3: New Lived, Authority died.

Personnel: James Brandon Lewis: tenor saxophone; Luke Stewart: bass; Warren Trae Crudup III: drums; Jaimie Branch: trumpet; Anthony Pirog: guitar.

Title: An Unruly Manifesto | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Relative Pitch Records

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