If the red lily signifies passion, then the melodic acuity and rhythmic dexterity displayed by the James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet seem to have been collected under the proper auspices. For Jesup Wagon, the ensemble’s first recording, Lewis aimed at detailing the nuances of American renaissance man George Washington Carver’s life. And he did. But in the process, the bandleader also revealed portions of his own inner life.
“The story of a lotus or lily, just coming up from the mud, the muck and mire to bloom on the surface—it was my whole thought process and psychologically where I think I am as an artist. I’m from Buffalo, and we’re the underdog,” the saxophonist said in March over Zoom from his home in New York City.
Jesup Wagon follows Lewis’ 2020 Molecular, a quartet date that meditated on the micro-world of science. For this latest effort, though, the bandleader explores Carver’s far more macro innovations, including the titular mobile wagon that he first dispatched to the rural South in 1906 to offer farmers and sharecroppers expert information about agriculture. The back-to-back albums indicate a significant engagement with science, one that seems to be familial.
“My mom was a schoolteacher. She was a science teacher and helped develop science exams for New York State,” Lewis explained. “So I spent time at the Buffalo Museum of Science and around nature. And being around my mom, she kind of cultivated [my interest in] science and my love of music.”
Lewis’ fascination with Carver began as a schoolkid, when he penned an essay on the scientist, inventor, writer, musician, and artist. It’s been lost to time at this point, but slowly peeling back the layers of Carver’s life revealed Lewis’ own variegated practice, one that’s helped him amass credits alongside guitarist Marc Ribot on an album of protest songs and as the orchestrator of melodic material for no-wave progenitor Lydia Lunch. The bandleader also was quick to mention his predilection for abstract expressionism.
“In terms of musicians not being considered artists in the sense of depth … [S]omewhere along the line, we completely forgot that Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington were chillin’ with surrealists in Paris,” Lewis said. “We forget about saying any of that in our stories. Or that George Washington Carver wasn’t just ‘the peanut guy’ and a scientist.”
Adding to his long list of influences, Lewis couched his own playing within a sports metaphor. For inspiration while performing, the saxophonist thinks about former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, an athlete primed enough to stop on a dime and change direction at a moment’s notice. A similar kind of facility is just about essential for the Red Lily Quintet.
The new album’s opening triptych—“Jesup Wagon,” “Lowlands of Sorrow,” and “Arachis”—begins with Lewis alone, deftly moving through octaves of skronky blues phrases before the ensemble kicks in. The second cut’s bucolic shuffle lurches forward, as cornetist Kirk Knuffke takes the spotlight. Bassist William Parker turns to gimbri, imbuing the effort with a slinky feel that emerges occasionally throughout the album; his arco performance on “Arachis,” named after the taxonomic category that includes the peanut, melds with Chris Hoffman’s work on cello, and grants Lewis and drummer Chad Taylor the opportunity to get free.
“One thing that is hard, I think, for musicians is to write in a way that allows the personalities of their band to come out. To give them freedom to play and do what they do,” said Taylor, who’s released a pair of duo recordings with Lewis, over the phone from his Philadelphia home. “What’s remarkable is how James is able to do this, because this is an ensemble that hasn’t played [together] before. You have to have the tools, but you have to arrange them and explain to people what you need them to do—or not to do.”
As Jesup Wagon concludes, Lewis’ troupe moves through his rumbling composition “Chemurgy,” a tune that includes one of the several spoken-word interjections that dapple the recording. Here, the bandleader caps the album with a rumination on the unrelenting determination of a seedling.
“When I think about composing, or how to tell a story, I’m thinking about beginnings, middles, and ends,” Lewis said, detailing Carver’s early years as a sick child, as well as his struggle to be accepted as a Black artist in 19th- and 20th-century America. “Having lived in New York for nine years and having been away from Buffalo since I was 19, I’ve had my own challenges. One thing about being in New York City is, it questions whether you love music. How much do you love it?”