James Brandon Lewis: Days of Freeman

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, along with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Rudy Royston, delivers a taut, street-smart set, rooted firmly in hip-hop ancestry yet crafted to honor the tenets of inspired jazz improvisation. References to venerated elders from diverse genres permeate both the music and Lewis’ written narrative, including shout-outs to historic hip-hop groups and rap-music forebears like A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets and Lee “Scratch” Perry. To make an even larger point about the grand scope of African-American heritage, interspersed throughout are recorded excerpts of Lewis’ grandmother, Pearl Lewis, ruminating on such topics as freedom, faith, family and the power of gospel music.

Unlike some more self-conscious forward-looking players, neither Lewis nor his compatriots sound as if they’re condescending or slumming. Lewis segues effortlessly from rich melodicism to caustic split tones and multiphonics; his lines are challenging, sometimes audacious, but focused and well honed. Royston is funk-toughened yet deftly attuned to texture and color; Tacuma, a veteran of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, uses his electric bass both as rhythm instrument and font of melodic and harmonic exploration. The musical references to hip-hop are implied, not imposed. Even the hard-rock interlude in “Lament for JLew,” featuring Tacuma summoning stentorian bombast from his bass as Lewis soars above and Royston stokes volcanic fires below, sounds unforced. Although some may find Lewis’ insistence on the connection between his music and hip-hop to be a bit overstated, his overall message is undeniable: As the AACM would put it, this is “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future,” and these musicians purvey it with integrity, grace and spirit. The music here bespeaks a dedication to uplift and truth-seeking that’s absent from much contemporary pop, hip-hop included.

David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.