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James Brandon Lewis: For Mahalia With Love (Expanded Edition)

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James Brandon Lewis: For Mahalia With Love (Expanded Edition)
Not since Oded Tzur's Isabela (ECM, 2022) has a comparably exalted tenor saxophone-led album come along, not until For Mahalia, With Love. Vaultingly great jazz and deep solace for the soul, For Mahalia, With Love was released in late 2023. An annual cycle for albums of this quality is actually a sufficiency, for there is enough in both these, and those that preceded them, to last a listener a lifetime. File next to John Coltrane's Crescent (Impulse!, 1964) and Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity (ESP, 1965).

First the backstory. For Mahalia, With Love is the second album from James Brandon Lewis' Red Lily Quintet, following Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms, 2021). The lineup is unchanged: Lewis on tenor, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Chris Hoffman on cello, William Parker on bass, Chad Taylor (see * below) on drums. Unchanged too is the message-bearing nature of the album: Jesup Wagon is a tribute to the born-into-slavery scientist and environmentalist George Washington Carver; For Mahalia, With Love is a celebration of the legacy of Mahalia Jackson, true to its essence but framed in a 2020s jazz context.

Back to Albert Ayler. Listen to track one, "Sparrow," on the first of the two CDs which make up the Expanded Edition of For Mahalia, With Love (check the YouTube below). Is that him on the tenor? And brother Donald on the cornet? Well, no, but the Aylers inhabited nearby terrain back in the day. Other questions follow. Is this where the Aylers, Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders began? Or is it where they left off? As the disc progresses, and the Red Lily Quintet stretch out, the Ayler resonances become less distinct, but having been summoned, remain close by.

Lewis was inspired to make this glorious album by his grandmother and, he writes in the liner notes, the countless times that as a child he and she sang along to Jackson's music in her home. In his liner note, he lauds both Jackson and his grandmother. Lewis' short essay is as affecting in its own way as the 72 minutes of music on disc one of this set.

Disc two, These Are Soulful Days, is a live recording Lewis made at the Jazztopad Festival in Poland in late 2021. He is accompanied on the titular suite by the Lutoslawski string quartet. The performance was given around the time that Lewis was writing the material for the Red Lily Quintet disc. The vibe is adjacent, and the third movement includes another striking arrangement of disc one's "Wade In The Water." Lewis' writing for strings is terrific. A Red Lily Quintet with strings album could be a wondrous thing.

If anything can be both soaring and deep, For Mahalia, With Love nails it. The album is a perfect masterpiece. So why only 4.5 stars? Because, as with Oded Tzur's Isabela, something needs to be kept in reserve for subsequent albums, in the expectation that things are going to get even better.

* Chad Taylor has recently been feted in this parish for his part in the late Jaimie Branch's Fly Or Die Quartet; see the Branch elegy 7 Steps To Heaven here.

Track Listing

CD1: Sparrow; Swing Low; Go Down Moses; Wade In The Water; Calvary; Deep River; Elijah Rock; Were You There; Precious Lord; CD2: Introduction by JBL; Prologue - Humility; Movement I; Movement I; Movement I; Movement I; Epilogue - Resilience; Encore - Take Me To The Water.

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

James Brandon Lewis: tenor saxophone. CD1: Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Chris Hoffman: cello; William Parker: bass; Chad Taylor: drums, tambourine. CD2: Roksana Kwasnikowska: first violin; Marcin Markowicz: second violin; Arthur Rozmyslowicz: viola; Maciej Mlodawski: cello.

Album information

Title: For Mahalia With Love (Expanded Edition) | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Tao Forms


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