Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has been establishing himself in various contexts for the last few years, but his main focus lately has been on his Red Lily Quintet. Their first album, Jesup Wagon, (TAO Forms, 2021), was dedicated to African-American scientist, George Washington Carver. On their 2023 release, the group's music focuses on the work of the legendary gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.
This tribute takes the form of interpretations of familiar spirituals Jackson often sang. The gospel-derived power of Albert Ayler also hovers over this music, most strongly on the opening track, "Sparrow," where Lewis' tenor and Kirk Knuffke's cornet plow into the melody with graceful, unhurried power, responding to each other as Ayler and his trumpeter brother Donald Ayler did in their time.
Other tracks have more involved structures. On "Swing Low," Lewis plays melodies and counter-melodies solo, before giving way to a growling undercurrent laid down by the rhythm section, cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist William Parker, and drummer Chad Taylor. This in turn leads to the horns returning with fiery intensity. "Go Down Moses" has Lewis and Knuffke swirling around each other in soulful dialogue over Parker's relentless walking bass while on "Deep River" the horns sway in jubilant harmonies over cello and bass plucks and thumping drums. Lewis and Knuffke answer each other like exuberant choir soloists in their call-and-response on "Elijah Rock" as the drums explode under them like a congregation shouting "Amen" to a preacher's fiery sermon.
This gorgeous music reaches back to the spiritual jazz legacy of Ayler, John Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders and reconnects it beautifully to the passion and joy of gospel music as Mahalia Jackson and others performed it. It is a major triumph for James Brandon Lewis and his group.
The first edition of this album contains a bonus example of Lewis' many talents, a second CD presenting his composition for tenor sax and string quartet, "These Are Soulful Days," performed live by Lewis and the Lutoslawski Quartet. This extended piece weaves a blend of folk, spiritual and blues ideas into a rich fabric where Lewis' tenor can either sing placidly or lean in hard as the strings bend and breathe around him. The work reaches a high point in "Movement III" where Lewis wails the spiritual "Wade In The Water" as the quartet backs him with a choppy tango rhythm. It is all further proof of Lewis' marvelous versatility.
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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