Somewhat forgotten amidst the excitement surrounding James Brandon Lewis
' UnRuly Manifesto
(Relative Pitch, 2019) was the excellent release that preceded it. Radiant Imprints
(Off, 2018), a duo release with drummer Chad Taylor
, put the focus squarely on Lewis' extraordinary tenor saxophone prowess and his strong accord with one of the most in-demand drummers in creative jazz. If it didn't have quite the stylistic eclecticism of its successor, it was nevertheless a stimulating release that showed Lewis could more than hold his own on what is one of the most demanding formats for a saxophonist.
Further proof that the Lewis / Taylor partnership is one of the most exciting matchups in contemporary jazz is found on Live in Willisau
, a substantial document that manages to go well beyond Radiant Imprints
, both in its dynamic energy and in its pan- idiomatic sweep. The magic of the album is due in no small part to its being a live recording. Not only is the audience clearly enjoying itself but Lewis too seems thrilled to be taking part, noting at one point in his remarks to the crowd that he "got emotional" when thinking about the legendary performances that have taken place at Willisau over the years. One of those concerts from 1980 featuring Dewey Redman
and Ed Blackwell
, Red and Black in Willisau
(Black Saint, 1985), is explicitly invoked here with Redman's "Willisee." Lewis is drawing not only from that inspired pairing, but also the John Coltrane
/ Rashied Ali
relationship that produced the landmark Interstellar Space
(Impulse, 1974), as three pieces here make clear. "Twenty Four" offers explicit re-workings of Coltrane's themes from "Giant Steps" and "26-2" and "Radiance" grapples with "Seraphic Light," while "Imprints" makes oblique reference to Coltrane's "Impressions."
But if Lewis is in no way shy when it comes to acknowledging his musical debts, he's just as emphatic when it comes to making his own statementand quite a statement it is too, when one considers the breadth of his playing. He can incorporate everything from in-the-pocket swing to free jazz, gospel to funk, and bluesy grit to untethered abstraction, sometimes all in the same piece. One can't deny his ability to spit fire on a track like "Radiance," where he screams upper-register notes in jubilation, but he never ventures so far out that he can't bring things back into a writhing groove once Taylor establishes it, or go from a boil to a simmer when it's time to take the heat down with a deep, soulful finale. His expressive rendition of Duke Ellington
's "Come Sunday" is just as stunning in its delicate grace as the bracing power he serves up on "Imprints."
Equally important to the proceedings, of course, is Taylor. He has plenty of room to maneuver in this live context, and like Lewis he is able to traverse stylistic modes with ease, turning on a dime from fierce freedom to a hard-driving funk or rock beat without hesitation. His malleability is a crucial ingredient to keeping the music fresh and invigorating, even given the concert's length of well over an hour. And there's an undeniable melodicism at the heart of his playing, crucial in complementing Lewis' own tuneful tendencies.
Sax/drum pairings don't typically command the kind of attention of more conventional group effortsso one might not expect Live in Willisau
to end up on quite as many year-end lists as UnRuly Manifesto
. But that would be unfortunate, as this album is easily as formidable, and just as enjoyable, as its predecessor.
Twenty Four; Radiance; Matape; Come Sunday; Imprints; Watakushi No Sekai; With Sorrow Lonnie; Willisee; Under/Over the Rainbow.