The combination of James Brandon Lewis
' impassioned tenor saxophone and songs associated with gospel singer and Civil Rights activist Mahalia Jackson is a match made in heaven. On For Mahalia, With Love
by his Red Lily Quintet, Lewis retains the crack squad which made Jesup Wagon
(Tao Forms, 2021) a success. Even though Lewis has a proven knack for crafting an affecting melody, he has chosen well as this repertoire has not only stood the test of time, but is infused with deep meaning and spirituality.
For all the earthy simplicity of the tunes, the group's interplay imbues them with multiple layers and intoxicating depth. The variety of approaches to what undergirds these performances is captivating. Witness how cellist Christopher Hoffman
, bassist William Parker
and drummer Chad Taylor
constantly modulate the feel, now masking the beat, now adding a counter line, now a light swing, now a stop start percussive veneer. Lewis' programming avoids staleness and promotes flow, creating contrasts exemplified by the way the rubato churn of "Were You There" follows the loping vamp of the "Elijah Rock."
With a ululatory catch in the throat, Lewis conveys emotion and, like a preacher, he knows the incantatory power of repetition, becoming at his most unbound on a stirring rendition of "Calvary." This enterprise is also the perfect vehicle for the lustrous tone of Lewis' front line partner cornetist Kirk Knuffke
, who pulls off the trick of bringing a lyric sensibility to the free settings without compromising either of them.
Lewis fully integrates pithy individual features into the richly woven fabric, further enlivened by the way the tenor saxophone and cornet continually plait in a spirit-lifting intertwining. Parker manages to be both rock solid and mutable, allowing Taylor the leeway to embellish and commentate. He exploits that license to the full, taking on the mantle of the great Hamid Drake
in these sorts of situations, maintaining a stream of detailed articulations and asides even as he generates a rolling groove. Lewis has fashioned an album which is both celebratory and bursting with hard won joy.
As if this was not enough, the set comes in an expanded edition which includes a 50-minute recital of Lewis' "These Are Soulful Days," which he performs with the Lutosławski String Quartet. Unlike many such marriages of jazz and strings, Lewis preserves his familiar virtues -lovely refrains, rich harmonies, propulsive rhythms and freeform excursions. In the work, Lewis pays homage to what he calls "the quilted history of African American music from its folk traditions of blues, spirituals and jazz." Not only that. He also conjures a klezmer tinge at times, as well as more abstract episodes of percussive tapping.
The Quartet ably negotiates the rhythmic shifts to buttress Lewis' luminescent tenor. Although largely through-composed, Lewis provides opportunities for everyone to shake off the shackles, notably in "Movement II" and the "Epilogue." To its credit, the Quartet handles these extemporized passages with none of the tentativeness which tended to mar so many such digressions by classical performers in the past. He uses such gambits sparingly, but their inclusion ensures the whole piece builds to a dramatic finale. It would be well worth the price of entry on its own, but in tandem with the Red Lily Quintet, the offer is unmissable.
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.
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