It’s not always possible to see a star rise in real time. It is often only in hind sight that we can ascribe importance to an emerging talent. But in the case of James Brandon Lewis, the jazz world has reached a consensus, and we can now say with certainty that the Buffalo-born tenor saxophonist is a legitimate force in the field. We got first hand confirmation as Lewis and his Trio: Christopher Hoffman, electric cello and Max Jaffe, drums, performed at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls on Thursday, March 10 in a concert produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.
Lewis, now 39, is serious about everything he does. That includes writing prose and poetry, conversing, researching and playing the tenor. His performance at the Shea established the point. The 70-minute set was filled with simple, direct statements delivered with power and conviction. Lewis’s music had a spiritual effect on this listener, as small nuggets of melody were woven in endless variation. Much like the preacher who seizes on a theme then spins corollaries, Lewis emphasized his point with run after dazzling run, using the declarative power of the blues to do it. He stood grounded, with feet shoulder width apart, sermonizing in broad brawny tones, delivering combinations of emotion-packed punches. That searching quality we associate with Coltrane and Ayler is also present in the music of James Brandon Lewis.
Lewis’s father is a minister and he grew up in the Church, where “he found out what it meant for music to brush against the holy spirit,” as Giovanni Russonello wrote in the New York Times. That spirit-infused attitude has been a constant as Lewis has emerged into the limelight.
Seeing Lewis’s Trio with Luke Stewart and Warren Trae Crudup III at the Vision Festival in 2016 was a stop-in-my-tracks moment. Two years later, Lewis was back at New York’s Vision Festival, sharing the stage with legends Dave Burrell, Kidd Jordan, William Parker and Andrew Cyrille. The symbolic torch passing was hard to miss.
Last year, he was voted the top rising tenor saxophonist by critics in Downbeat. This year he earned the top tenor player award by critics in Jazz Times, and his release Jessup Wagon, was recognized as the record of the year. Whatever that all means, Lewis’s star has clearly risen.
Although the Trio is relatively new, they have already gelled. Jaffe said playing in the trio is natural, “like breathing.” We are awaiting the results of a completed studio recording.
Jaffe earned his Masters from Cal Arts last year and was a long-time member of Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones and the experimental rock collective, JOBS. The drummer has been on the road with Ava Mendoza, Peter Evans and Rubblebucket, among others, and was through these parts in October, playing in Steph Richards Quartet. He pushed the band into ecstatic territory without playing loudly, using dynamics and the lower sonic end of his drum kit to provide all the energy the band needed.
Hoffman is an in-demand cellist and who is into his second decade as a member of Henry Threadgill’s Pulitzer Prize winning ensemble, Zooid. He is also part of Anat Cohen’s Tentet and Rudy Royston’s Flatbed Buggy, and has performed at Jazz Shares concerts led by Tony Malaby (2015) and Josh Sinton (2019). He can be heard (along with Kirk Knuffke, William Parker and Chad Taylor) on Lewis’s celebrated Jessup Wagon. Hoffman’s electric cello, played while standing, looked like the stick bass favored in lots of Latin bands. His use of pedals brought another dimension to the proceedings, changing timbre and attack to anchor and provoke.
James Brandon Lewis is a curious soul, who draws inspiration from many sources. Jessup Wagon channels the myriad accomplishments of George Washington Carver, who designed the wagon that brought his innovative farming techniques to poor Black southern growers.
In his wonderful liner notes that accompany the recording, Robin D. G. Kelley summed up an attitude shared by both Carver and Lewis: “The lesson is clear,” Kelley wrote, “remember the old ways, learn the new ways.”