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James Brandon Lewis / Red Lily Quintet: For Mahalia, With Love

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James Brandon Lewis / Red Lily Quintet: For Mahalia, With Love
Moving on chronologically from George Washington Carver—the African-American musician and influential agricultural scientist to whom James Brandon Lewis' previous recording with the Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms 2021), was dedicated—For Mahalia, With Love continues the pattern of paying homage to influential Afro-Americans who, in their own way, changed the course of history. This album's dedicatee is the early gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, whose seminal performances lit a spark in the saxophonist's grandmother; she in turn carried the spark forward, passing it on to her grandson.

Accompanying the release is a letter by Lewis, addressed to "Mahalia," in which he writes: "Mahalia, I became enamored with you from the day my Grandmother told me about you, because everything grandma mentions must be special (...). Ms. Mahalia Jackson, your name alone will forever serve as a reminder of the mutual love my grandmother and I share for Music, for you and your music especially, and the countless times her and I would talk about your impact and jam to your sounds." The letter is heartfelt, offering a deeply intimate gaze into both Brandon Lewis's adoration of the music and artists who formed him, and the family values he holds dear and belong to his musical context.

Fire, grace and dedication are all over the nine mostly-familiar gospel tunes the saxophonist tackles with his very muscular Red Lily Quintet featuring Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Chris Hoffman on cello, avant-garde legend William Parker on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums. The famous melodies are all clearly spelled out at one point or another. But what happens before, in between or after the subject is up to the innovative minds of the quintet's virtuoso improvisers, whose interplay lacks neither patience nor verve. Free jazz elements, folkloric percussion, post-bop vocabulary and idioms borrowed from the avant-garde combine in extensive, often just-under-ten-minute-long structures which share both lyrical tendencies and a free-wheeling spirit of musicians letting loose.

For example, "Go Down Moses" kicks off with an open New Orleans-style heterophony which starts bopping and popping with thumping bass and cello plucking before Lewis takes off on a tangent, injecting the chart with bebop flexions which reveal roots going as far back as Charlie Parker. Tempos shift, changes veer from preconceived paths and, as the saxophone pretends to be looping backwards (a terrific effect, which Lewis employs regularly), a pause unfurls, leaving room for spacious and semi-textural improvisation. Parker's bass-ostinato subsequently introduces the coda.

Throughout the album Knuffke and Lewis' trumpet and saxophone intertwine in endless spirals, wailing in unison, then in counterpoint, then in something less defined but equally, if not more, musical, energetic and natural. Taylors's drum work is drenched in traditions going much further back than bebop, but his modernist perspective allows new ideas to enter the music, completing a trans-idiomatic picture which, paradoxically, could not be much truer to its roots. Hoffman's cello is that additional instrument which seamlessly alternates between roles, adding melodically percussive pizzicato impulses in one moment, lyrical arco-improvisations in the next, while hovering and floating between the ensemble, spicing things up from the sidelines.

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

Album information

Title: For Mahalia, With Love | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Tao Forms


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