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.