Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis‘s second album, Divine Travels, is out this week. (Buy it from Amazon.) It’s a trio date, with a superb rhythm section—William Parker on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. On two tracks, “The Preacher’s Baptist Beat” and “Organized Minorities,” the group is joined by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis. It’s one of a wave of releases on the OKeh label, an early jazz imprint recently revived by Sony.
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1983, Lewis began playing jazz while studying at Howard University, and spent several years playing gospel before moving to New York in 2012. His first album, 2010’s Moments, was self-released, and featured guitarist Neil Kogan, pianist Robert Holliday, bassist Ben Shepherd (not the Soundgarden guy, as far as I can tell) and drummer John Shebalin, with harpist Susan Allen guesting on one track. (Buy it from Amazon.) On that album, Lewis’s playing feels freighted with the desire to convey significance, most obviously on the opening track, “Reflection”; he seems to be aiming for John Coltrane circa 1963-64, but comes closer to Joshua Redman circa 1994 (still not a bad place to be). As Moments progresses, though, it gets more impressive and more of Lewis’s voice comes through. “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” a saxophone-guitar duo, probes at the listener’s sensitive spots like a persistent insect, while “I Remember South Africa” is built around a hypnotically—almost maddeningly—repetitive melody reminiscent of Albert Ayler‘s mournful, Salvation-Army-band-gone-berserk wails, while providing plenty of solo space for guest trumpeter Brandon Sherman. Other tracks have a funk/soul groove, bolstering slick arrangements that would please fans of Donald Fagen‘s solo albums.
Much of the melodic sophistication heard on Moments is absent on Divine Travels. Lewis opens the disc solo, worrying at and eventually wandering from a short foundational phrase as Parker’s bass occasionally throbs behind him, not so much setting up a groove as providing a counterweight to the saxophone’s explorations. The second track, “Desensitized,” takes a similar approach albeit at greater speed, and now with Gerald Cleaver playing a sort of shuffling free time behind him. Throughout the album, the drums are assertive yet soft, never truly erupting the way the saxophonist’s unfettered playing might seem to demand. Whether this was Cleaver’s decision or Lewis’s, opting to maintain this approach for all 10 tracks demonstrates a discipline often absent in young players, who want to run the field. Parker, as always, is both anchor and pivot point, maintaining the balance while still driving the music forward—Lewis’s long phrases are knotted and obsessive enough that without the bassist there, he might seem to be floating in space, legs pinwheeling madly like Wile E. Coyote seconds after running off a cliff. At times, the music resembles a slightly more toned-down version of Charles Gayle‘s Touchin’ On Trane (on which Parker also played, alongside drummer Rashied Ali).
The two tracks featuring poetry don’t wreck the album, but Ellis is definitely unnecessary. He’s got that annoying, “did I just blow your mind, man?” coffeehouse delivery, speaking too slowly as though that will grant his singsong phrases gravitas the language itself can’t conjure. “Organized Minorities” is particularly irksome, as Ellis starts each line with “or” until it starts to sound like a rockabilly singer’s hiccup. It takes away from whatever he’s actually saying, or trying to say. Fortunately, Lewis’s rough, expressionistic blowing keeps the nine-minute piece’s center of gravity where it should be.
Divine Travels isn’t a free jazz album. But it’s surprisingly free for a major label release. Lewis is way too young, his style still too unformed, to seize the tenor saxophone throne left vacant since David S. Ware‘s passing. But this record—and the way he constructs a melody, and his choice of sidemen—make me think he might be a real contender in the future. And there’s a lot here to enjoy. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s a very good one: adventurous enough that all involved should be commended, and different enough from his debut to imply that Lewis has a lot of ideas left in him.
Stream excerpts from Divine Travels: