Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis (interviewed on BA podcast 52) had a very busy 2020, at least in terms of records that arrived on store shelves — or, more realistically, on Bandcamp and streaming services. In addition to a live duo recording with drummer Chad Taylor, he put out a Molecular, studio album with a quartet featuring pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones, and Taylor; Artificial Happiness Button with Heroes Are Gang Leaders, his large-ensemble poetry-and-free jazz unit co-led with poet Thomas Sayers Ellis; and this album. Orientation of We is a quartet led by bassist Max Johnson and featuring trumpeter Michael Irwin and drummer Joe Hertenstein; Emergence, recorded in July 2017, is their debut.
Lewis has a way of grabbing onto a riff and grinding it into splinters. He does that at the beginning of the first track here, “Are You On Too,” repeating a clarion-call sort of phrase over and over, a little more forcefully each time, until eventually Irwin comes in as a counterpart. Then he takes off into a more traditional solo, and when the trumpeter takes his turn in the spotlight, Lewis stays in the background, hovering on one or two notes like the saxophone equivalent of a pedal point bassline. Johnson and Hertenstein keep the energy level high but not aggressively so; they bounce like William Parker and Hamid Drake in the bassist’s quartet.
The title track, also the longest piece on the album at nearly 11 minutes, has a classic hard bop flavor. It could have been recorded in 1955. Johnson’s bass goes for a relaxed and relaxing walk around the block, as Hertenstein drops one bomb after another behind the kit, but never pushing too hard. These men are playing the blues with confidence and poise. Lewis’s solo is deep and meditative, recalling old-school masters like Ike Quebec or even Coleman Hawkins, while Irwin’s has just slightly more edge, despite his soft, almost fuzzy tone. Around the seven-minute mark, the tempo picks up and things get a little more raucous, but it’s not like it suddenly becomes caterwauling free jazz or something; it’s more like something fans of John Coltrane‘s Prestige albums would welcome.
The shortest track on Emergence is also one of the most surprising. “Again” is a mere three and a half minutes, and the quartet is in full cry from the first note. Lewis dives deep into the low end of the tenor’s range, growling and roaring like Joe Henderson on Inner Urge (recorded in 1964 but not released until 1966); Irwin mostly stays out of his way, adding but a few comments from the sidelines. Hertenstein, who kicks things off with a short but emphatic roll, sounds like he’s soloing through the piece himself, and Johnson’s playing is fast and unfettered. It starts abruptly and ends suddenly, leaving the listener wanting at least five and maybe ten more minutes.
Given that this music is three years old, it’s easy to be curious about how these four players’ collective language might have evolved in the interval. It would be great to hear a second volume from them. But if this is a one-off, it’s a damn good one.