James Brandon Lewis Takes Two

For the rising saxophonist's first Before & After listening session, it's all sax-and-drum duos

Vision Festival 23, Roulette, May 23, 2018

James Brandon Lewis at the 2018 Vision Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y. (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Closing out the the opening night of the 2018 Vision Festival on May 23 at Roulette in Brooklyn, 34-year-old tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis played an hour-long collective improvisation set with masters of the form: drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist William Parker, pianist Dave Burrell (the nominal leader), and the group’s senior member, the omnivorously avant-garde 83-year-old tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Between them, Lewis and Jordan stretched one motif across an entire hour without losing musical interest, showing the ability to express forking paths of harmony and rhythm in a single note. By the end of the set, the two had exhausted the possibilities of the unbroken extended improvisation, and themselves.

It wasn’t the first time someone symbolically passed Lewis the torch. Named personally by Sonny Rollins as one of his successors, Lewis has a sensitivity and versatility to his playing that makes him seem equally at home in straight-ahead settings, on his hip-hop-infused trio album No Filter, or with the uncategorizable jazz-metal salvoes of Harriet Tubman at the 2018 Winter Jazzfest in NYC. Most recently, Lewis released Radiant Imprints, his full-throated fifth album, a strikingly lyrical, rhythmically kaleidoscopic duo date with drummer Chad Taylor. It’s a challenge dispensing with chordal instruments (even bass) entirely, but many before him have not shrunk from it. Strong precedents in the lineage of saxophone-drums duo albums span the past 60 years, from heavyweights—Archie Shepp and Max Roach, Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink, Billy Higgins and Charles Lloyd—to recent work by British duo Binker and Moses. Lewis recently sat down for his first Before & After with JazzTimes at the Columbia University Center for Jazz Studies to listen to some of the classics of this demanding subgenre, and to discuss what makes them work.

  1. Sonny Rollins 
    “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” (Newk’s Time, Blue Note). Rollins, tenor saxophone; Philly Joe Jones, drums. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: Yeah, that’s Sonny Rollins. It don’t get no better than that. And his rhythmic sense is just off the chain. The stuff he does motivically, it really sounds free. If someone read [a transcription of] this, it’s almost like what we read and what we hear are two different things. Obviously, we know that he knows what he’s doing, because you can hear it. He knows that melody. Like, he knows it! And to be able to build it, and almost fragment it where it’s still within the context of harmony like we know it—you can’t get that kind of training in school. It just doesn’t happen that way, even though I went to school.

This is the brilliance of Sonny Rollins—you’re not hearing a bunch of streams of eighth notes. It’s broken up rhythmically. So many different ways of articulation going on within this piece. You hear different accents, you’re hearing slurring, smearing of notes—it sounds like he’s talking, you know? You can’t get bored with that, and the reason you can’t get bored is because he’s not just trying to prove how fast he could play. He’s articulating it in a way where he’s developing it, but it’s just like language. It’s chopped up in a way that still makes sense but it gives a certain life to the music where it’s just him and drums but you never get bored. See, this is one of the challenges I feel like with a duo recording when there’s just a saxophone and drums. He’s got a lot of leaps in there, he’s texturing the notes in a way that’s propelling it forward. It’s not only the harmony that’s propelling it, it’s also that interaction with him and Philly Joe Jones.

  1. Shelly Manne
    “Me and Some Drums” (2-3-4, Impulse!). Manne, drums; Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: The recordings in the ’60s to me always sound like the time period. A lot of turmoil, a lot of pain, it just has a certain urgency to it. This is Coleman Hawkins. Without a doubt. Is that Andrew Cyrille on drums? You know he recorded with Coleman Hawkins.

Right around this time, too.

AFTER: I recently listened to a two-hour interview with Coleman Hawkins, and he’s saying he went overseas for 10 years, came back, and everybody was playing extensions. He was already doing that before he left, but he was told he was wrong, you know? The older I get, it’s funny—you’re so enamored by flash, but when you listen to these guys when you get older you start to realize they’re really brilliant. [Hawkins] always sounds like he’s progressing, too. It never sounds like he stopped improving. Some recordings, you can even hear him playing 1-2-3-5, that pattern [employed frequently by Coltrane]. He just wasn’t fazed. He kept at it. This is awesome.

Once again, not a lot of streams of eighth notes, a lot of punctuation, smearing, a vocal quality, you hear that vibrato in there. But the commonalities between him and Sonny—when he’s hitting those high notes, it’s a little bit more nasal—but overall, he and Sonny both have a rounded sound, which has been an inspiration for me in my life. That vibrato—I don’t want to sound like an old fart, because I’m not, but good use of vibrato can shape tone. There are so many vocal qualities you can get on the sax that I’m not going to say you don’t hear nowadays, but we’ve gone for a very clean approach to playing the horn, where a lot of the great recordings that we listen to, there’s all kinds of articulation. That’s the same thing that I like about Dexter Gordon, there’s just that quality in the oral cavity. Shelly Manne, yeah, that was killing.

  1. John Coltrane
    “Venus” (Interstellar Space, Impulse!). Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Rashied Ali, drums. Recorded in 1967.

BEFORE: [Immediately] I already know that one, by them bells. It’s Interstellar Space, Rashied Ali and John Coltrane. I’ve got a funny story about that. When I was in high school, I discovered that recording. My mom was not a big fan of R&B, so I was playing some R&B of the day in the ’90s, and she was tired of me playing that. So I was like, “Okay, cool, then I’m going to listen to Interstellar Space, because she can’t possibly get mad at sax and drums.” And she heard that and she almost went off!

That recording really changed my life, man. I mean, his technical prowess on the sax on that album specifically is amazing. But listen to that, it’s like, “It’s not quite Christmastime, but are y’all ready for what’s about to go down?” And it completely recontextualizes the use of bells. Come on, now. That’s like the call right there. [Sings opening line] Once again, I want to stress this—the vocal quality of how they’re playing. Maybe it was just a sign of the times—[the idea of] knowing the lyrics—but I think knowing the lyrics has a deeper meaning. It’s about the vocal quality of the line. [Sings opening line again] You could hear somebody sing that easily. It’s still very angular, not streams and streams. Of course, he gets to that place on here, but he’s building it.

See, then he enters that other tonality, that little minor, he’s picking and choosing, it’s like a nice dance of tonality there. [Sings opening line] See? It’s still in there! Which is the genius of him, to be able to take fragments, playing around, and I don’t mean playing around in the negative. These gentlemen were masters of switching the tonality around, where it ceases to be about progression but more about motivic, pointillistic note choices. It’s still in there! [Sings opening line] You can easily see the lineage between this and Thelonious Monk, for example. He hits that note—bam, on the high register! Not random. No, nothing random about these folks. He’s exploring intervallics. [Sings opening line] It’s still there! That’s like Bach right there.

  1. Jackie McLean and Michael Carvin
    “Antiquity: The Hunter and His Game” (Antiquity, SteepleChase). McLean, alto saxophone; Carvin, drums. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: Trying to talk a little bit on his horn like Dewey Redman.

AFTER: Once again, going with the theme, not a whole lot of streams, very lyrical quality to that playing. Of course, you hear the bebop influence. There’s great use of space and notes. He playin’ the blues, man. See how he’s building that? You know, pull the listener in. You hear him vocalizing. We need more raw recordings. People are afraid to talk on tracks nowadays. It’s like, give me that raw!

You see how he’s using that one note as a launchpad? This is very like church. I don’t want to generalize, because we’ve had so much dialogue about the influence of church on music, but that’s very much like a minister when the church is getting excited and the kind of phrasing that a sermon has is like a launchpad, very like [sings “Can I get an Amen? Yeah, yeah”]. It’s very back and forth, call and response, and that same thing kind of translates with different saxophone players who are having a call-and-response conversation with themselves. He doesn’t continue to play the same note but he continues the same idea, and then he went to a different note in the high register, but that same concept of attack and release, making it interesting with the drums.

If you only have a linear thing going, large intervals provide overtone ringing. So when you have those intervals—those leaps that we heard him doing—he’s hitting the high, that low, you’ve got those overtones ringing. Angularness and jaggedness provide interest in how you’re hearing things.

What I’ve noticed with all these recordings so far is they have different ways of varying their articulation and increasing the interval size to make it sound vibrant. What makes it interesting is hearing that distance. If you’re only doing thirds or chromatic stuff, it starts to get a little boring.

  1. Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell
    “Communication” (Red and Black in Willisau, Black Saint). Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: [Immediately] I already know this. This is Ed Blackwell and Dewey Redman, Red and Black. This is one of my favorite recordings. This is one of the ones that first launched the dialogue with me and Chad about the duos. This is one of his favorite drum and sax duos, too. I listened to this a bunch. I love Dewey Redman, man. You see, look at that space. And Ed Blackwell, come on, man. It don’t get no better than that. And Dewey is playing musette [elsewhere] on [the album].

You can hear the tuning of the drums here.

Exactly. Which actually reminds me a lot of the way Chad plays. He’s got a vocal quality to his drums. Every time I hear Dewey Redman or Ed Blackwell, I just hear people who know how to communicate—that talking quality. His sound, man! See those jumps, the great use of overtones. It just gives the music life. If you’re not doing all those extra things, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be interesting, but you’ve got to make it interesting. It’s a challenge, because there ain’t nothin’ to lean on. Now you’ve got no bass at all. How are you gonna make it interesting? You’ve got to know different motivic stuff, too.

That’s that Fort Worth, Texas coming out. You’ve got Dewey, Ornette of course, all them Fort Worth cats—playin’!

  1. Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille
    “Exotique” (Burnt Offering, Black Saint). Lyons, alto saxophone; Cyrille, drums. Recorded in 1982.

BEFORE: Is that Jimmy Lyons with Andrew Cyrille? Burnt Offering? Without a doubt, man. There’s only one Jimmy Lyons. I listened to this one, too. See, it’s pointillistic. So now, when you don’t do the large intervals, but you do short intervals, the ends of the lines are pointillistic. These runs—he’s talking, man. That’s the purpose of that. Another person that should be talked about way more. There should be statues of [Lyons], man. I love that recording. A lot of people don’t know about it, and that joint is killin’.

  1. Joe Henderson
    “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, Verve). Henderson, tenor saxophone; Gregory Hutchinson, drums. Recorded in 1991.

BEFORE: That’s Joe Henderson. What record is it from?

AFTER: Once again, I’m telling you—varying the rhythm. There are certain key Joe things, like those trills. See, that’s signature Joe. I’m going to have to check that out. You definitely hear Joe Lovano play like the beginning parts of that.

Maybe he gets that from Joe Henderson.

Exactly.

  1. Kidd Jordan and Hamid Drake
    “Set Two” (A Night in November: Live in New Orleans, Valid). Jordan, tenor saxophone; Drake, drums. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: That’s Hamid on drums. I can’t tell which range the saxophone player is yet. That’s Kidd Jordan. Kidd’s got great space on this. There’s so much space. I love him, man. His knowledge of saxophone is thorough. I’m pretty sure he took some lessons with Fred Hemke. And he used to have some of the Marsalis folks as students, and his brother-in-law was Alvin Batiste. Kidd did all kinds of music.

This is a certain vibe, man. Still that vocal quality in there, and he’s not overly exerting power. That’s supporting his tone from his diaphragm. You don’t get that just by wiggling your fingers. This guy is a master of the overtone series, and he spent about 40 years teaching, maybe longer than that. So he’s vocalizing it, but he’s not just supporting the note with the vocalizing—it’s a diaphragm situation. When you listen to some of these recordings, for me, there are certain pointillistic notes that stick out, where a melody starts emerging from what you’re hearing. I can’t explain it, but he’s playing those notes, and within a cluster, certain notes start to emerge.

  1. Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey
    “The Museum of Human Achievement” (Buoyancy, Relative Pitch). Laubrock, tenor saxophone; Rainey, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: It’s on the tip of my tongue. That’s Tom Rainey on drums, with Ingrid Laubrock. I just saw her yesterday. I love her tone. She’s a beast. But I could tell. She’s got that mysterious thing happening in her playing, like tonally. I definitely knew who it was. She’s just got a gorgeous sound. It’s got kind of a melancholiness to it, and Tom Rainey—that’s Tom Rainey. I’ve played with her a lot. She asked me to be in her large ensemble one time.

See, the use of space. Once again, she’s using the sax in different articulations, the way he’s playing the drums is very spacious, so once again, it’s not streams of eighth notes. It’s broken up. It also helps the way that they recorded this. It sounds like they’re in a hall with some reverb happening, which gives it depth. Ingrid is an amazing player. Everybody should know about her, too.

  1. JD Allen
    “Naked” (Graffiti, Savant). Allen, tenor saxophone; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: Is that Joshua Redman? Walter Smith [III]? Don’t tell me. It’s coming. JD Allen. That’s my boy JD Allen. And that’s Rudy Royston on drums. This dude keeps me in the shed, man. I love him. And he’s been like a quasi-mentor. Those beginning lines kind of remind me of Joshua. They’re of a similar generation. And Rudy Royston, I worked with him before. I checked that album out, but I didn’t remember this track!  JT

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs from this listening session, plus a track from James Brandon Lewis’ duo album with drummer Chad Taylor:

Read JazzTimes‘ review of James Brandon Lewis and others performing with Dave Burrell at the 2018 Vision Festival.