James Brandon Lewis – Days of FreeMan [TrackList follows] – Okeh [Distr. by Sony Masterworks] 888750827823, 62:21 [7/24/15] ****:

(James Brandon Lewis – tenor saxophone, producer; Jamaaladeen Tacuma – bass; Rudy Royston – drums; HPrizm – sound designer (tracks 1, 5, 8, 11, 15); Supernatural – rapping (track 6); Pearl Lewis – vocals, narration (tracks 1, 5-6, 8, 11, 15))

There is depth to tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’ music. Lewis’ previous project, Divine Travels (2014) focused on spirituality, with some other minor themes. That album showed Lewis’ maturity as composer and performer, and on his third effort, the hour-long Days of FreeMan, Lewis continues his escalation of ideas, themes, performance, composition, improvisation and creativity. Days of FreeMan covers a lot of background information and thoughts, from childhood memories to ancestral history; and from the relationship between seemingly disparate musical genres (rock, hip-hop, jazz, classical and more) to astronomy. Anyone interested in hearing a summary of Days of FreeMan should listen to a 6-minute video promo available online.

An important thematic element Lewis investigates is the confluence of jazz and hip-hop music. Lewis is a product the latter part of the 20th century. He grew up with contemporary jazz, gospel and hip-hop. The urban music permeated him and is now entrenched. Lewis’ approach on Days of FreeMan is unique. Rather than incorporating rap/hip-hop components into jazz, or forcing jazz into a hip-hop/rap basis, Lewis melds both into a distinct mélange that is 100% jazz, but which implicitly refers to hip-hop rhythms, beats, nomenclature and ingredients. In a way, Lewis’ music is heading toward the intensity and deepness of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.

Lewis’s 19 tracks are organized in chapters which are used like hip-hop style breaks, with spoken-word interludes (labeled as breaks, which serve as chapter pauses) by his grandmother, Pearl Lewis. Lewis also surveys hip-hop as a culture by drawing on the four mainstays of hip-hop: dance, rapping, graffiti and DJ-ing. Lewis’ exploration is realized by a prominent group which consists of electric bass legend Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Rudy Royston (see Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bill Frisell and others); alongside sound designer HPrizm; a rapper named Supernatural; and Lewis’ grandmother, who adds spoken word anecdotes and recollections.

The CD’s clearest hip-hop influence arrives during the title track. The tune commences with the sound of scratchy vinyl (akin to a DJ operating a turntable) percolating under Lewis’ tender horn, and then the band kicks up into an upbeat arrangement which echoes the snappish outburst of a hip-hop MC. Those speech-like touches are then supplanted by an actual rap from vocalist Supernatural, and the cut concludes with a sinuous sax solo. The first number, “Brother 1976,”—which comes after Pearl Lewis’ opening intro—displays how Lewis, Tacuma and Royston can wrap hip-hop cadences into a fluid, vibrant tune. This notion of using jazz to exemplify hip-hop intonations is also demonstrated during “Boom Bap Bop,” where Lewis exploits his sax to epitomize the timbres of a vocalizing rapper. Manipulating a horn to imply the human voice isn’t new, but the way Lewis suggests a rapper’s metrical vocal sound is invigorating and unconventional. Lewis reiterates this same tactic on the final tune, “Unarmed with a Mic,” which also alludes to hip-hop music with a clipped beat, and Lewis’ imaginative soloing. The cut finishes with a gentle end section.

Cosmology and astronomy also are integrated into the music. The Coltrane-esque “Dark Matter” has a late-night jam vibe, while the title indicates the unseen substance which fills the universe. “Able Souls Dig Planets” also has an astrophysical evocation, although the music gravitates toward earthlier applications, namely James Brown’s soul music as well as the R’nB/hip-hop material by the band Digable Planets. And then there’s “Speaking from Jupiter.” While the free-flowing music seems comparable to Sun Ra’s otherworldly jazz, the piece was stimulated by the ‘90s rap trio, A Tribe Called Quest. The most bold achievement is the five-minute “Lament for JLew,” where James tethers together classical music, hip-hop and hard rock music. He employs original, classical music-characterized motifs, dizzying jazz soloing, and Tacuma offers weighty bass riffs similar to what rock/heavy metal music artists such as Metallica accomplish. Days of FreeMan is not a straight-ahead jazz record. The ambition in this album keeps the music too dynamic, too loose, and too widely dispersed to be standard or plainly predicable or average. This is cutting-edge jazz, alive with possibility, and teeming with verve. It’s jazz, but it’s got lots more for people to discover.

TrackList: Foreward; Brother 1976; Of Dark Matter; Black Ark; Break I; Days of FreeMan; Bird of Folk Cries; Break II; Wilson; Lament for JLew; Break III; Bamako Love; Boom Bap Bop; Steelo; Break IV; Able Souls Dig Planets; Speaking from Jupiter; Unarmed with a Mic; Epilogue [Brother 1976].

—Doug Simpson