Quite tonal (and tuneful), Divine Travels is nonetheless free jazz. It’s the major-label debut of tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, quite a departure from the R&B earthiness of 2011’s self-released Moments. Two masters of the avant-garde, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver, join Lewis here for 10 experiments with improvisation in melody, groove and texture. The results are excellent.
Like Ornette Coleman, Lewis is a proponent of rich themes, whether in composition or improvisation. “Desensitized” comprises two alternating sax themes, a few notes repeated ad infinitum (with a minimum of variation) while Parker and Cleaver follow and embellish with inspired synergy. Meanwhile, on the closing “Travels,” Lewis begins with a “do-re-mi” vamp that soon develops into more elaborate phrases and recitatives (until ending with a reprise of “Divine,” the theme that begins the disc). The long centerpiece, “Wading Child in the Motherless Water,” interweaves the melodies of the spirituals “Motherless Child” and “Wade in the Water.” It’s a cerebral undertaking, but not to the sacrifice of those songs’ beauty or depth of feeling; to the contrary, Lewis reinforces it with the grittiness of his tenor sound.
But his thematics don’t always lead the way. He spins short figures on “Tradition” as comments for Cleaver’s crisp, melodic drum solo, and ones on “Enclosed” that are setups for Parker to respond and counterpoint. His full-on improvisation on “No Wooden Nickels” is really just window dressing for Parker and Cleaver’s cha-cha groove—which goes on and on, in the best way possible.
The album has one irritating quirk: Almost every track ends in a fade. The effect is of a string of non-resolutions. Even so, Divine Travels is the work of a promising new voice.