With each new release, tenor saxophone phenom James Brandon Lewis seems to raise his game even higher. He continues to craft ever more compelling compositions, with both lyrical intensity and conceptual rigor, and his sound on the tenor is just as noteworthy, mixing brawn with sensitivity in equal measure. It doesn't hurt that he has colleagues of the first rank, with pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Chad Taylor part of his core quartet, the group that gave us its debut with 2020's masterful Molecular (Intakt). The band's latest, Code of Being, is another superlative effort, with well over an hour's worth of expertly played music.
Lewis is quite fond of mathematical and scientific devices as inspiration for his pieces; on the previous record he explained this with a somewhat esoteric theory involving what he called "molecular systematic music." But fortunately for the listener, there are a lot of ways to access the beauty of Lewis' art; succumbing to its emotional pull is perhaps the best. Lewis' way with a melody is evident from the opener, "Resonance" onward: a poignant tune undergirds what becomes a fierce pathway of exploration, with Lewis developing a tenacious grip on the piece as it unfolds, becoming increasingly animated and loquacious as he teases out phrase after phrase, seemingly without limit, but without ever leaving the theme of the tune completely behind. Ortiz is no less inspired, with a feisty, percussive solo that draws energy from the mighty rhythm tandem of Jones and Taylor.
When he's fully locked in, Lewis can breathe fire as well as any of the most demonstrative tenor saxophonists, as an encounter with the incendiary first half of "Where is Hella" reveals. But for the most part he's quite content to pace himself here, opening up the complexities of each piece in a deliberate, patient vein. "Archimedean" is a case in point: the band never rises above a low-simmering groove, yet Lewis manages to generate a great deal of implicit momentum by pursuing each line with determination, developing his own fascination with the new opportunities opened up at each moment. And along the way, we find Ortiz offering his own multifaceted interjections, displaying the same open-ended curiosity that gives the music a lot of its magic. A piece like "Every Atom Glows" is even more restrained, with an austere presentation and a sublimely slow tempo, allowing the breadth of the music to develop in all its richness, with each note sketched fully before the next takes its place. Jones' own dynamic solo also stands out here, exhibiting the same spirit of searching discovery that characterizes so much of the music on the record.
Listening to the quartet on the irresistible title track, one is tempted to compare this group to John Coltrane's classic band of the early 1960s. Hearing Ortiz's potent block chords and Taylor's catchy polyrhythms, not to mention Jones' unfailingly precise bass lines, it's hard not to hear the echoes of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison in their respective efforts. And Lewis' own questing approach to his instrument certainly resembles Coltrane's as well. But this music is in no way derivative. Instead, what one hears more than anything is the sheer power that four compatible musicians can create when pursuing a common vision, subordinating all of their individual talents to something greater than the sum of its parts. Lewis has had the good fortune to cultivate such a creative process with this remarkable group, even on just its sophomore release. Here's hoping for many more to come.
Resonance; Archimedean; Every Atom Glows; Per 4; Code of Being; Where is Hella; Per 5; Tessera.
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