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Even for an artist hailed by Ebony Magazine as one of “7 Young Players to Watch” who has studied with jazz heavyweights like Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Douglas, Joshua Redman, and Matthew Shipp, it takes considerable confidence and courage for a young musician to match wits with veteran improvisers like William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. But on his second release, Divine Travels, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis does just that, not only holding his own with that masterful rhythm section but leading them down fresh and unexpected pathways.
Divine Travels melds the holy spirit of a gospel service with the fiery expression of free jazz, the intuitive dialogue of skilled improvisers with the stunning invention of a first meeting. Lewis’ music draws in equal parts on his considerable studies and his roots in the church, as well as his considerable curiosity to discover more and deeper connections within his music.
Parker and Cleaver have a long history together, having co-founded the collective trio Farmers By Nature with pianist Craig Taborn and played together with artists like Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp, and Joe Morris. And both have worked with some of modern jazz’s greatest saxophonists: Parker with David S. Ware, Peter Brötzmann, and John Zorn, Cleaver with Roscoe Mitchell and Tim Berne.
Lewis calls the prospect of stepping into such esteemed shoes “a humbling experience.” It was demanding for me to keep my composure and to really be honest with myself in that scenario. How do I go into this session and not think about everyone that these two gentlemen have worked with in the past? I truly respect them to the nth degree, but I had to be honest and give who I am as a person, to be vulnerable to however the recording was going to come out. And I think that I left an impression, just like they left a huge impression on my being.”
Lewis’ unique stamp can be heard throughout Divine Travels, which results in Parker and Cleaver revealing new facets in their own strongly individual voices. Fragments of gospel melodies emerge and evoke starkly spiritual meditations in tunes like “Wading Child in the Motherless Water,” which weaves together the familiar melodies of “Wade in the Water” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But even when not explicitly referencing such traditional fare, Lewis shows a predilection for direct, memorable folk-like melodies that he can then develop, evolve and explore.
The album also contains two collaborations with poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, who Lewis has been working with since the two met at a residency in 2011. The Brooklyn-based poet recites works from two of his books, Skin, Inc., and The Maverick Room, which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award in 2005.
The title Divine Travels pays homage to Lewis’ belief that the music contained within is an expression of his own spiritual journey, marking both distance traveled and experiences yet to unfold.
Lewis’ own travels began in Buffalo, New York in 1983. Lewis was raised in the church, which formed the core of the saxophonist’s spiritual outlook. While many musicians are inspired by the church, Lewis says that its most important impact was not musical but personal, laying the foundation for his creative approach.
After graduating from the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, Lewis attended Howard University, where he studied with Charlie Young, performed with the likes of Benny Golson, Geri Allen, and Wallace Roney, and backed John Legend, k.d. lang, and Vanessa Williams at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble.
In 2006, Lewis moved to Colorado and pursued a career in gospel music, working with Grammy® Award-winning singer Dorinda Clark Cole and the late “Queen of Gospel Music,” Albertina Walker. He relocated again to earn his Masters at CalArts, where he was mentored by Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Vinny Golia, and Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson, who later hired Lewis to play in his ensemble.
Lewis released his debut album, Moments, in 2010, before moving to New York City in 2012. Since arriving in the city, he has performed with a wide range of artists, including Charles Gayle, Ed Shuller, Kirk Knuffke, Jason Hwang , Marilyn Crispell, Ken Filiano, Cooper Moore, Darius Jones, Eri Yamamoto, Federico Ughi, Kenny Wessel, Marvin “Bugalu” Smith, and Sabir Mateen, and has worked with the dance company CircuitDebris under the direction of Mersiha Mesihovic. He currently leads his own trio with Luke Stewart on bass and Dominic Fragman on drums.