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The Unstoppable James Brandon Lewis

Photo credit: Diane Allford

Eric Gudas By

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I have a fear and that is becoming complacent, which is why I am always studying and pushing things further. I also have a healthy relationship with being curious. If you're curious you can never become complacent and if you're complacent you will never desire to be curious.
—James Brandon Lewis
Tenor saxophonist, composer, and writer James Brandon Lewis is driven by a restlessness that makes him one of his generation's standout players of, and thinkers about jazz. Although he was voted Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist in the 2020 DownBeat Magazine International Critic's Poll, most might say, after listening to his recent releases, that his star has already risen.

Hailing from Buffalo, New York, Lewis apprenticed at Howard University, CalArts, the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts, among other launching pads, before he moved to New York City full time almost a decade ago. As Lewis writes, "Like my predecessors—John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler—I, as a saxophonist and composer in a direct lineage of sound painters, am attempting to deconstruct widely accepted approaches to musical form, theory, and performance practice in favor of an individualized music rooted in abstraction."

His releases themselves are highly "individualized." 2020 saw the release of two albums from Intakt Records, Live in Willsau a co-release with drummer Chad Taylor that documented the duo's incendiary performance at the 2019 Willisau Jazz Festival, and Molecular, a quartet album led by Lewis that uses his concept of Molecular Systematic Music—which he discusses in this interview—as a template for his compositions. His latest, and ninth, album, Jesup Wagon (TAO Forms, 2021), featuring his all-star Red Lily Quintet, interprets the legacy of George Washington Carver who, Lewis emphasizes, was "a musician, a painter, a prolific writer, in addition to what most people know about him. Having a broad range just makes the cast iron skillet more seasoned."

Lewis's own "broad range" makes him a potent collaborator: in addition to the ensembles already mentioned, Lewis and poet Thomas Sayers Ellis co-leads Heroes Are Gang Leaders whose album Artificial Happiness Button (Ropeadope) was yet another of Lewis's releases in 2020. We spoke online just before the release of Jesup Wagon.

All About Jazz: Can you explain your Molecular Systematic Music in the simplest possible terms to a non-scientist and a non-musician like—well, like me?

James Brandon Lewis: Molecular Systematic Music describes a twofold approach to music, braiding together the fundamentals of music theory with the ideas of molecular biology in the context of DNA. While I'm a musician, not a molecular biologist, the ideas expressed deploy the vocabulary of molecular biology as useful metaphors.

AAJ: You specifically mention "Helix," from Molecular as an example of your Molecular System Music paradigm, and yet you only play on the song for about a minute-and-a-half of its 4:45. What relation do your fellow musicians—Aruán Ortiz on piano, Brad Jones on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums and mbira—have, if any to the MSM paradigm in that song?

JBL: I think everyone's solo in this context was short. The song is pretty short , and I said what I needed to say musically and moved on. When collaborating with fellow musicians in the context of performing a piece such as "Helix," which is directly related to Molecular Systematic Music, I always rely on the musicians' well-trained instincts to generate variables not pertaining to the system itself. My goal in developing MSM is simply to encourage other players to discover their own innate tendencies. I employed specific structures within the melody definitely thinking of MSM .

AAJ: I believe the term "sheets of sound" originated with a jazz critic describing Coltrane's playing; whereas Ornette Coleman definitely developed his own theory of Harmolodics, just as the Molecular System Music paradigm is your own idea. I have a hard time understanding all three of these intellectual constructs, and yet I enjoy the music of Coltrane, Coleman, and Lewis. How important is it for you that your listeners, as well as the musicians who play your compositions, understand your underlying framework?

JBL: Heavy company to be named with, thank you! That's humbling. However there is more work to be done always Maybe it's important to know the context of how I came up with a particular piece or not. Music should maybe be just an experience that touches the heart bathed in the vibe of the moment. The theory can be left for non-listening moments, casual reading, but the context of someone's life and experience does reflect in their work, and to be seen is to be acknowledged. This system is a life's work that I am still defining every day. An artistic process that is daily, one that maybe just before I leave this realm I am a little closer to who I am musically because of it.

AAJ: In your original poem that you recite at the end of Jesup Wagon's "Chemurgy," "you refer to "resilient vessels." It occurred to me that "resilient vessels" could function as a meta-term for your various conceptions of biological, musical and cultural continuity. Am I stretching the term "resilient vessels" too far, or are you particularly interested in forms of continuity in both culture and music (and music-as-culture)?

JBL: I think you're on point with your thoughts on why I used these two words. I am always searching for ways to connect all of who I am to a larger conversation, a continued one, while at the same time not being so overt but coded just as DNA. In my work I enjoy leaving something to ponder rather than state it "so" as a matter of fact.

AAJ: Do you ever think of jazz standards as akin to DNA strands or memory board? I ask because on your and Live in Willisau you and Chad Taylor shift from some pretty frenetic, out-there playing to a quite reverent version of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday."

JBL:I believe that jazz is a continuum that continually adds to its fabric the multitudes of ways we can think of music. Cecil Taylor in interviews has stated Ellington's influence in his own life, and I see them as connected rather than separate. I also went to school and was educated in what you would call standards. I see them as a part of my fabric in terms of schooling and that which I continue to listen to, however I also have a relentless curiosity to study what is of me today as well, and what is the soundtrack of my current life. I use the past at times as a framework of influence rather than ways to copy an approach of a particular time period but to re-contextualize the piece to add to the ongoing conversation of it, and how we might play those pieces today.

AAJ: We won't be able have in-depth discussions of all the musicians on your recent releases. However, Chad Taylor appears on all four albums, so I wonder if you could talk about your and Chad's background as collaborators, and also how his role has shifted from project to project. His versatility is outstanding, and I believe I've heard you comment that Taylor's drumming can become melodic at times—certainly there are moments, for me on Molecular, in particular, when you seem to playing the same solo in tandem on different instruments.

JBL: I think there is a language that Chad and I are building on each album. Chad Taylor's diversity of styles aids in me being able to venture into many melodic spheres with no apprehension, and this makes the music very free. It's been a joy to work with Chad, not only can he play but is a great person.

AAJ: It's hard for me ask an analytic question about Molecular because I've just let the album soak into my mind and spirit as I drive around Los Angeles. However, I keep coming back to the 7-minute "Neosho," a song in which, by my count, you lay out for about half of the time, although your solo occupies the song's center. At other times, however, various other players take over the song, in trios, singles, and even solo. I find the song vey hypnotic, and I wonder if you might mind digging into how it came together.

JBL: Neosho, Missouri is where George Washington Carver spent time as a youth. I try to place markers in my work toward the next direction. That track is one of my favorites as well. I like to construct music so that everyone feels as though they can be who they are fully. I also lay out on purpose to build in a way that speaks to "us" rather than "I."

AAJ: How important is it for listeners of Jesup Wagon —which features you on tenor, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, the great William Parker on bass and gimbri; Christopher Hoffman on cello; and Chad Taylor on drums and mbira—to know anything about George Washington Carver? Conversely, how did you conceive of the album as a tribute to him or an exploration of his ideas?

JBL: I decided to pay tribute to George Washington Carver because it acknowledges those things that I was interested in as a young child. My mother taught fifth and sixth grade and taught math and science and so there is that influence of course. I tap into the things of my youth as an adult, now realizing there are more layers to unpack that can add depth to the initial spark. I think it's helpful for anyone to understand that context of any creative endeavor, it does not hurt to know. For me, knowing the legacies of great people such as George Washington Carver gives me strength in dealing with my own challenges, knowing the challenges of others before me.

AAJ: In his liner notes, renowned American historian Robin D. G. Kelley quotes you as saying about Jesup Wagon, "The idea of using just strings and horns with drums, brings about a certain kind of blues earthy vibe, a certain blues in feeling not in theory. I wanted the music to be folk" [encompassing] "folk elements—nature, nurture, and plant life." Maybe because Molecular is more based in your Molecular Systematic Music than, apparently, the more vernacular idiom of Jesup Wagon, the latter album has a whole different feel to me. Did you start with the idea of "using just strings and horns with drums" and then think of particular collaborators, or was the process more organic?

JBL: I had a sound in mind first which is how I work—sound then players and I had desired to use kora initially with drums and horns; however I shifted and decided to use gimbri, and the mbira, and yes, William and Chad fit the bill. The process is also always organic, and relationships with these gentlemen over the years that sparked the idea of putting this group together. I also try to make sure every album sounds different, which is an extreme challenge but one that inspires me to further reach deeper and past sounds I already explored.

AAJ: I'm glad Kelley mentioned Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" in his commentary on "Chemurgy," because I certainly hear a lot of Ornette, as both a both a player and composer on Jesup Wagon; but the combination of Chris Hoffman's cello and William Parker's bass also reminds me of Henry Threadgill's Sextett from 1980s, which often paired Diedre Murray on cello and Fred Hopkins on bass. (Of course Hoffman plays cello in Henry Threadgill's Zooid) However, it's the job of critics like me to make comparisons between ensembles like this one, while it's your freedom as a musician to brush all these comparisons aside and just talk about how this ensemble helped you make the kind of music you want to make to honor George Washington Carver?

JBL: Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill are two legends. One cannot escape influence, but I can say that the fabric of my DNA is different and my lived experience is different. I often find it humbling to be mentioned anywhere near the conversation of these players mentioned, but the work must continue, and the horn has no memory of anything, so I press forward starting each day on zero. It's natural to figure out where one is coming from, and I never get tired of answering those kinds of question of influence, because the more questions asked the more I am forced to figure out who I am musically, and that requires a relentless curiosity that I am totally up for.

AAJ: Kelley mentions that "'Low land of sorrow' was a common phrase found in African American prayer and song; it refers to the downtrodden, the oppressed, but also to the secular world of wickedness." How does your song "Low Land of Sorrow" engage with these vernacular and religious traditions, if at all?

JBL:"Lowlands of Sorrow" was a term George Washington Carver used in describing the downtrodden places he would go to disseminate information on soil restoration, crops, and so on . I think the song sounds like movement, whatever it becomes throughout the song it starts with movement. It sounds like earth, like continuation of the bell patterns of old, the call and the response to make things progress forward.

AAJ: I believe Jesup Wagon was recorded in August, 2020, that is, during the height of the pandemic—and indeed before the presidential election. Was recording this album during the pandemic different in any substantive ways from recording Molecular, pre-pandemic?

JBL: It was never my intention to create any art marked by this time period. That is the main difference in this album and others, the original intent was to not even acknowledge this time because it felt wrong to be working while folks are losing their lives, it felt selfish. However I began to realize that not creating or being creative, I was hurting myself in the process, because music provides a certain level of hope and possibility that keeps me positive. I realized that one cannot help others if their own ship is sinking.

AAJ: I have to ask about your musical relationship with William Parker, which goes at least back to 2011, when you, Parker, Gerald Cleaver, and poet Thomas Sayers Ellis recorded your album Divine Travels (O-keh). Since then, I believe you toured with the William Parker Organ Quartet in France and played one-off gigs with his bands Mayan Space Station and In Order To Survive, in a configuration that included you, Matthew Shipp, Gerald Cleaver, Rob Brown, and of course Parker. I remember after that last-mentioned gig, which took place during the pandemic, you wrote somewhere, "I learned a lot." What have you learned from Parker as (I presume) a mentor but also as an equal who, from time to time, plays in your bands?

JBL: You can learn a lot using a cast iron skillet as a metaphor for describing how mentee and mentor works, a new pot seeks the seasoning level of cast iron , however one should know that cast iron gets better over time, over meals prepared. The key factor in this is time, the living informs the note. I would never describe myself as equal to William Parker—his legacy proceeds my own existence. William Parker has tremendous depth as a person: he is a prolific composer, bassist, a poet, and mentor to many, including myself. He embodies the qualities of what makes his music what it is on and off the bandstand. He is a gentle soul, I have watched him help and encourage so many young people. I am thankful to have been able to work with him over the past ten years, what a joy. I am thankful he agreed to play in my ensembles; however I never view him as a sideman. William Parker is a legend, a leader always. Observing his character—wow, what can I say? A man with a huge heart and respect for many. When he says, "Let's travel to the Tone World," I believe him, and every time I play with him I know we are headed to that realm. In that realm all is beautiful.

AAJ: What's next? You're certainly a composer and musician who never stands still; and in fact I've read somewhere about a new release from you in July. What do 2021, 2022, and beyond hold for James Brandon Lewis? Selfishly, I hope your post-pandemic tour plans include a stop in Los Angeles, where I can see you perform in person.

JBL: I have a fear and that is becoming complacent, which is why I am always studying and pushing things further. I also have a healthy relationship with being curious. If you're curious you can never become complacent and if you're complacent you will never desire to be curious. I would love to come out to L.A., and thanks so much for supporting the work, and asking these in-depth questions. Up next—another quartet record, a trio record, a solo album, and more writings.

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