James Brandon Lewis’ debut on Okeh Records is now available in the US and worldwide from March 10, 2014.
Even for an artist hailed by Ebony Magazine as one of “7 Young Players to Watch” who has studied with jazz heavyweights like Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Douglas, Joshua Redman, and Matthew Shipp, it takes considerable confidence and courage for a young musician to match wits with veteran improvisers like William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. But on his second release, Divine Travels, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis does just that, not only holding his own with that masterful rhythm section but leading them down fresh and unexpected pathways.
Divine Travels melds the holy spirit of a gospel service with the fiery expression of free jazz, the intuitive dialogue of skilled improvisers with the stunning invention of a first meeting. Lewis’ music draws in equal parts on his considerable studies and his roots in the church, as well as his considerable curiosity to discover more and deeper connections within his music.
Lewis’ unique stamp can be heard throughout Divine Travels, which results in Parker and Cleaver revealing new facets in their own strongly individual voices. Fragments of gospel melodies emerge and evoke starkly spiritual meditations in tunes like “Wading Child in the Motherless Water,” which weaves together the familiar melodies of “Wade in the Water” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But even when not explicitly referencing such traditional fare, Lewis shows a predilection for direct, memorable folk-like melodies that he can then develop, evolve and explore.
The album also contains two collaborations with poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, who Lewis has been working with since the two met at a residency in 2011. The Brooklyn-based poet recites works from two of his books, Skin, Inc., and The Maverick Room, which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award in 2005.
The title Divine Travels pays homage to Lewis’ belief that the music contained within is an expression of his own spiritual journey, marking both distance traveled and experiences yet to unfold.
Lewis’ own travels began in Buffalo, New York in 1983. Lewis was raised in the church, which formed the core of the saxophonist’s spiritual outlook. While many musicians are inspired by the church, Lewis says that its most important impact was not musical but personal, laying the foundation for his creative approach.
After graduating from the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, Lewis attended Howard University, where he studied with Charlie Young, performed with the likes of Benny Golson, Geri Allen, and Wallace Roney, and backed John Legend, k.d. lang, and Vanessa Williams at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble.
In 2006, Lewis moved to Colorado and pursued a career in gospel music, working with Grammy® Award-winning singer Dorinda Clark Cole and the late “Queen of Gospel Music,” Albertina Walker. He relocated again to earn his Masters at CalArts, where he was mentored by Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Vinny Golia, and Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson, who later hired Lewis to play in his ensemble.
Lewis released his debut album, Moments, in 2010, before moving to New York City in 2012. Since arriving in the city, he has performed with a wide range of artists, including Charles Gayle, Ed Shuller, Kirk Knuffke, Jason Hwang , Marilyn Crispell, Ken Filiano, Cooper Moore, Darius Jones, Eri Yamamoto, Federico Ughi, Kenny Wessel, Marvin “Bugalu” Smith, and Sabir Mateen, and has worked with the dance company CircuitDebris under the direction of Mersiha Mesihovic. He currently leads his own trio with Luke Stewart on bass and Dominic Fragman on drums.
Divine Travels can be ordered here or downloaded on iTunes.
Get a first impression of the album below.