The sound of the moment

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Trolley Jesup is dedicated to Dr. George Washington Carver (1864-1943), a son of slaves whose boundary-defying life accrued accomplishments in music and painting.

(Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)

A recording can become the jazz album of the year by embodying the sound of the moment or indicating the direction in which the music is going next. Unwittingly, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis crafted precisely the music that many people needed to hear and recorded it with a band that pushed its leader to new heights.

Trolley Jesup is dedicated to Dr. George Washington Carver (1864-1943), a son of slaves whose boundary-defying life accumulated accomplishments in music and painting, in addition to transformative advances in the investigative and applied sciences. It is named after the vehicle Carver used to travel across the southern United States to teach farming communities about sustainable practices.

The album’s seven compositions pay homage to the plants and practices Carver cultivated and studied, as well as the places he worked and the communities he strove to uplift. Celebrating an African-American scholar who has dedicated his life to the redemptive potential of scientific research, community service, and creative practice has made Trolley Jesup a welcome balm when it was released last May – after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid an ongoing plague of increasingly toxic social discourse.

Lewis’ horn opens the title track, calling the proceedings to order, punctuating the incantatory phrases with rude shouts. After about a minute of solo saxophone, the other members of the Red Lily Quintet, DownBeat’s Rising Star Band of the Year, reunited especially for Trolley Jesup – join him.

Cornetist Kirk Knuffke’s high notes leap over the saxophonist’s broad-shouldered statement, cellist Chris Hoffman pinches a jubilant countermelody, and drummer Chad Taylor unleashes a surging attack that seems almost out of control but grounds the actions with precision. martial. Then the horn and strings coin drops as Knuffke and Hoffman drop out while Lewis returns in tandem with bassist William Parker.

By the time the track is over, chances are the blues that harassed you have been banned.

On subsequent tracks, Parker occasionally switches to guembri, a Moroccan bass lute, and Taylor to mbira, a Zimbabwean thumb piano. Speaking via video chat from Pittsburgh, where his trio were due to perform with a pair of wordsmiths at City of Asylum on the final night of Jazz Poetry Month 2022, Lewis explains: “I wanted instruments that represented the earth. They sound organic, they don’t sound electrified, and I needed them to convey some earthiness.

On Trolley Jesup, tones establish character; themes and rhythms evoke cinematographic visions. “Arachis”, which takes its name from the Latin name for groundnut, originated from an image of Carver in the lab with his students, using Bunsen burners. “I literally imagine visuals; I try to paint with it,” Lewis says. “There is a lot of lyricism in all my music, and a lot of emotion. It’s pretty much infused with emotion, without being too sappy.

The empathetic support that the rest of Red Lily Quintet lends to the album is particularly noteworthy given that the band had little time as a unit prior to recording. However, the musicians were hardly strangers. “Individually, I play with all these people,” Lewis explains. “Chad and I have a duet. William and I have worked together for the past 10 years in different ensembles. I met Kirk in 2013, and we haven’t played much together, but we’ve played enough. In fact, one of the first conversations he and I had was about George Washington Carver. The only person I had played with only once was Chris Hoffman.

Lewis is both puzzled and grateful for the continued positive response to Trolley Jesup. “I don’t know why this album specifically resonated with so many people, but it did, and it’s cool, and I’m grateful that it did.” He feels that the praise he attracts is not just reflected on him, but on the musicians who have inspired, guided and encouraged him. “That album wasn’t all about me,” he says. “It was about the community of people working on the fringes, and when the album wins, we all win. Those who paved the way for me, the Wadada Leo Smiths, the Anthony Braxtons, the Henry Threadgills of the world, the William Parker and Matthew Shipps, all those people, Angelica Sanchez, you know? When one of those albums gets some kind of review, it helps the community. I want to emphasize that.

The original impulse to work Trolley Jesup was an invitation from another member of this community. “At the start of COVID, Whit Dickey, who is an amazing drummer, called me and said he was going to start a label.”

The name of this label is Tao Forms. But the first seeds of the project were planted decades earlier. Lewis was born in 1983, the son of a preacher and educator. “My exposure to George Washington Carver began when I was a child. My mother was a science and social studies teacher in Buffalo, New York, where I come from, and we spent our summers with her as she worked either on the exams for the city of Buffalo, either on different workshops. She was a hands-on teacher, and she exposed us to that, my brothers and sisters. So ultimately, as a young person tasked with writing an essay on someone for science, I remember being exposed to George Washington Carver, many times in my adult life, I would go back and dig into my memory, and peel back even more layers.

The combination of self-directed learning and externally structured learning, in which Lewis often revisits previous lessons, is part of his development.

He learned the clarinet at the age of 9 and taught himself to play simple melodies before enrolling at Magnet Arts College in Buffalo the following year. He played in school and church bands throughout high school, then went on to college at Buffalo State and Howard University. After a period living in Denver, he resumed his studies at CalArts, where he fondly remembers Charlie Haden’s classes. “Charlie was not a theoretical guy. He would tell us about his grandchildren, or he would tell us about a hike he had done, and he would talk a lot about beauty. I never heard him waste a note he was playing in class; every note meant something, and I tried to put a lot of that into my own playing, to play a melody where it meant something. So yeah, that’s one of the main reasons I went to CalArts. Wadada (Leo Smith) and Joe LaBarbera…Alphonso Johnson, who I worked with after I graduated…you know, all nice people too. I can’t stress that enough. Hella musicians, but also nice. I felt no ego at all. Since 2012, Lewis has lived in New York. Since 2014, he has produced eight albums as a bandleader or as a duo with Chad Taylor.

Since recording Trolley Jesup, Red Lily Quintet has only played a few concerts, but a second album is in the works. Lewis currently leads an energetic trio with Hoffman and drummer Max Jaffe; the James Brandon Lewis Quartet, featuring Taylor, pianist Aruán Ortiz and bassist Brad Jones; and the trendy Unruly Quintet. He is also a founder and permanent member of the lyrics and music collective Heroes Are Gang Leaders. In April, Lewis became the first recipient of the Balvenie Fellowship for a PhD program in creativity at the University of the Arts. “It’s an opportunity for me to get answers to some questions from my own research, questions about molecular systematic music, which I’ve been working on since 2011,” he explains.

Molecular systematic music is the concept behind the compositions of the saxophonist for his quartet. Essentially, the system involves applying knowledge gained from studying Lewis’ genetic structures to his compositional choices. “Seeing music through molecular biology to recontextualize everything gives me a fresh start with music. You know it’s no different than if you hear about Sonny Rollins or someone going on sabbatical, or Coltrane locking himself in a room. I would say molecular is my sabbatical, stepping into a new field to discover something new for me. All of my albums and all of my theories have to do with me trying to achieve the truest version of myself before I die.

Ten days before Lewis’ conversation with DownBeat, 10 black people died and two others were injured in a racially charged shooting that took place in his hometown. He closed the interview with these words: “Buffalo is a tight-knit community. I went to school with a young woman who lost someone in this situation, and it’s unfortunate. It would be nice if we could all come together as humans and, rather than bickering and fighting, find real solutions that can unite rather than divide. comics


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