James Brandon Lewis – Divine Travels [TrackList follows] – OKeh 88883766642, 67:13 [Distr. by Sony] [2/4/14] ****:
(James Brandon Lewis – tenor saxophone, producer; Gerald Cleaver – drums; William Parker – bass; Thomas Sayers Ellis – vocals (tracks 4, 9))
Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis takes us on a spiritual journey on his sophomore release, the aptly named Divine Travels. Over the course of Lewis’ ten original compositions, which add up to 67 minutes, the NYC-based Lewis traverses a path which combines elements of free or avant-garde jazz, post-bop and the kind of auditory terrain which John Coltrane navigated toward the end of his career. On Divine Travels, Lewis weds his gospel and jazz background into a cohesive manner: he tried to do the same on his debut, 2010’s Moments, but here the music and his intent coalesces and gels.
Part of the reason the material flows so well is Lewis’ maturity as composer and performer (although he’s still relatively young, just now hitting his third decade), but the album is also successful due to Lewis’ two-way rhythm team, drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist William Parker. Cleaver (who left his Detroit base to reside in New York City) has worked with numerous artists, including pianist Craig Taborn, Roscoe Mitchell and Jacky Terrasson, and has had a stream of solo records since the early 2000s. Parker has a long history in the free jazz scene. He’s collaborated with Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp and many more, and began issuing solo projects in the late 1970s.
The leading tunes meld a sacred fervor with the passionate essence of free jazz. Bits of gospel melodies occur or are suggested during the almost 12-minute opus, “Wading Child in the Motherless Water,” which interlaces traces of “Wade in the Water” and “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” But this is no mere pastiche. The trio creates music new and innovative from the musical roots. Parker’s large, woody bass groove supplies a shepherding force, as Lewis harnesses and alters the harmonics as he improvises with resolve and Cleaver showcases his rhythmic flexibility and spherical pacing. There’s a similarity during the quickening “A Gathering of Souls” where Lewis’s soloing is invigorating and complex, and dynamically matched by the rhythm section. Lewis’ frantic melody is stretched to generate nearly bop-esque vibrancy, but then the threesome launches away and goes into a sonic stratosphere: you can even hear someone yell out “Yeah!” as Lewis reaches higher and higher notes.
Lewis maintains a supportive equilibrium between the aforementioned fiery cuts and other numbers which focus on subtlety. Opener “Divine” is a slow but steady, mood-elevated modal ballad, which has an affectionate and sympathetic standpoint reminiscent of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Lewis’ etched lyrical perspective and inviting, warm sax is underscored by Parker’s tonal bass harmonics and Cleaver’s welcoming but edgy percussion. On “Enclosed,” which is both optimistic and intricate, Lewis expertly demonstrates his likable, well-rounded tonality and his slightly tense temperament, while Parker proficiently blends communicative pizzicato and arco bass touches. Divine Travels also merges jazz cadences with spoken word. Poet Thomas Sayers Ellis recites portions from two of his books. He talks about disparate non-secular experiences on the churchly “The Preacher’s Baptist Beat,” where his vocal intonation complements the band’s pulse. A comparable ambiance flits through the blues-tinged “Organized Minorities,” where Ellis’ accentuations have a horn-like quality.
Divine Travels is Lewis’ best recording to date, but the feeling is there is so much more to come, more to hear, more to appreciate. Lewis’ spirituality, music and emotional core moves, and will move listeners with its responsiveness. Divine Travels reveals Lewis is starting an exciting excursion which has just begun. The imagination and inventiveness Lewis exhibits here is the tip, there is a lot on the horizon.
TrackList: Divine; Desensitized; Tradition; The Preacher’s Baptist Beat; Wading Child in the Motherless Water; A Gathering of Souls; Enclosed; No Wooden Nickels; Organized Minorities; Travels.