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A Quietus Interview

Chasing Energy: An Interview With James Brandon Lewis
Stewart Smith , November 7th, 2023 10:41

Ahead of a show as part of EFG London Jazz Festival this month, saxophonist, composer and improviser James Brandon Lewis speaks to Stewart Smith about honouring the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, his unique compositional system Molecular Systematic Music and more

Photos by Ben Pier

“I genuinely feel within the depths of my soul, that the notes are informed by something, that I'm playing ‘about’ something,” says James Brandon Lewis. The 40-year-old tenor saxophonist, composer and improviser draws inspiration from spirituality, science, philosophy, literature and visual art. “The act of blowing air through this conical thing, I still get excited about that, but I think my life has come full circle now, where everything feels like one. If I'm reading a book, I feel like I'm practising saxophone. I don't separate the two.”

Throughout our conversation, Lewis refers to musicians, visual artists, philosophers and scientists, noting how they could relate to each other through the use of metaphor. Molecular biology is the metaphor Lewis uses when it comes to his own music, specifically the compositional system he calls Molecular Systematic Music. “I think I’m okay at this point in my life to be the secret nerd,” he laughs. Lewis describes himself as an analytical person, but he also believes in intuition, which comes through in his expressive and adventurous music. From free jazz to chamber music, hip hop to punk, Lewis works freely across genres and contexts. “I just view it as chasing energy.”

Raised in Buffalo, New York, Lewis came up playing clarinet and saxophone in the church, before moving to California to study with jazz greats Wadada Leo Smith and Charlie Haden. Upon returning to the East Coast, he established himself as a powerful artist in the free jazz continuum. Sonny Rollins digs him, Questlove nominated him for a PhD scholarship, and he’s just dropped one of the finest albums of the year with his Red Lily Quintet in For Mahalia, With Love. Over the past decade, he’s released a dozen albums as a leader, from his innovative Molecular Quartet – with whom he’ll be playing at EFG London Jazz Festival – and the more groove-oriented Trio, to his duo with master drummer Chad Taylor and his punkier Eye Of I trio with cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Max Jaffe. Those punk inclinations have led to collaborations with The Messthetics and Mendoza Hoffs Revels, while his love of poetry has put him at the core of Amiri Baraka-inspired collective Heroes Are Gang Leaders.

When we speak, Lewis is just back from Tangier, Morocco, where he was a mentor on 577 Records’ Sounds Of Freedom residency. While there, he also took the opportunity to jam with master gnawa musicians. “It was really very profound,” he reflects, “and it makes you realise that there are, at least for me, other forms, other ways outside Western notation.” Lewis was fascinated by a chart one of the gnawa masters showed him, a graphic design of circles, colours, lines and diamonds that contains 242 songs. The experience validated Lewis’s attempts to develop his own musical system, Molecular Systematic Music, and move away from Western notation. Such experiences, he believes, happen for a reason. “I don't believe in luck, I believe in divine order, that things happen as they should. Not necessarily pertaining to evil things – I'm basically talking about good things.”

The idea behind Molecular Systematic Music, Lewis explains, is to use scientific theories as a method to construct music. “It took me a while to come up with a definition that everyone could grasp. I'm currently at the University Of The Arts, working on a doctorate in philosophy and creativity, where I'm expounding on these theories. I'm studying some of my improvisations from a few years ago, specifically how I was improvising. [It] felt like it was in a very cyclical or oscillated fashion like a spiral. I needed to know what that was visually, and I came across a double helix. It made the most sense for what I saw in my mind and just expanded from there.” During our conversation, Lewis reels off further scientific metaphors, from his conception of musical intervals as the “initial building blocks or strands of information” to “the four basic harmonic environments being equivalent to adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine,” the bases of a DNA molecule.

The focus of Lewis’s research has become “the transformative experiences that can shape your artistic DNA.” To illustrate his point, Lewis mentions spiritual jazz. “I don't necessarily know if I understand what that means [as an idea]. But I think I understand the idea of [John] Coltrane, and his encounter with God, and everything from that experience being a by-product of that which ultimately contributed to his artistic DNA, meaning his characteristics. We use the word DNA, so cliché every day. Watching a sports team, it's like, what is the DNA of this team? What is the thing that makes them unique? So, I'm interested in investigating that. My encounter with the whole idea of molecular biology continues to shape my music's personality. The way in which I structure my music caters to the idea of metaphysics, being in tune with the things that are not quantifiable, a qualitative research idea.”

As part of his studies, Lewis has also been exploring the idea of intuition, as expounded by philosophers like Henri Bergson, Buckminster Fuller and Rudolf Steiner, and practiced by the surrealists. Lewis is particularly inspired by Robin DG Kelly’s anthology Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings From Africa And The Diaspora. “The idea of framing something metaphorically, for the reader, it's almost like writing code, when you think about surrealist writings or surrealist paintings.”

Connecting all this to his own heritage, Lewis puts forward the African American quilting tradition as another form of coding. “This notion that something can serve as a mnemonic device, where you give your memory. It's not just because of the physical thing, it's because it's sparking the synapses in a certain way to trigger an event. So, I'm very fascinated with these things and that plays out in my work. Who knows if people are hearing the system or not? But it's intriguing, and it's allowed my brain to calm down and be able to add layers to it where I can.”

One such layer is his Molecular Quartet itself. Lewis was keen to work with a pianist, something he hadn’t done in several years. “And what better way to do that? Bass, drum, sax, piano, it's classic.” He intentionally chose older musicians. “I felt like they could add a layer of depth to me. I'm pushed and challenged when I play and I need that.” The music Lewis makes with the group is among his most challenging, with its knotty lines, angular rhythms and intricate structures, but it’s also fiery, beautiful and compelling.

“My work involves the idea of building my own molecule and then allowing myself to give meaning to it,” he continues. “Most of the time when I'm building my compositions, sometimes the strictness of this system prevails. And at other times, I'm going off of the philosophical side of this system, that idea of using intuition and those things that are uniquely you, that you can't put on a grid. So then when I think about the music I've composed over the years for this ensemble, which has all been molecular, for most of it I never give them the molecule, I have to give them that Western notation, right? I could have given them a molecule and all the permutations of the molecule, but that directly correlates with how I'm structuring things intervallically. But I liked the mystery in it too. I like the tension that it creates for them to not know, so it's not a requirement, but they are curious about how I'm constructing things melodically. As Brad Jones said, ‘Your music is not complicated. It's tricky.’ I said, Okay, I like that. I can dig that.

“How do I envision my music? I don't need a whole lot. I'm not trying to be innovative, not trying to be smart. I just want people to respect five per cent of who I think I am. That's it, just five. Just let me have my five of my own identity. And then sure, the other 95 you think is someone else? Cool. I just want my thought. I will work the hell out of my thought. That's basically been my motivation.”

Coming back to the idea of music as an heirloom, Lewis honours the memory of important Black historical figures in his albums with the Red Lily Quintet. “I got this whole idea from Jack Whitten's Black Monolith series,” he explains. “He created these visual works dedicated to historical figures.” Red Lily’s brilliant 2021 debut Jesup Wagon, for example, pays homage to agricultural scientist, ecologist and renaissance man Dr George Washington Carver, while this year’s For Mahalia, With Love honours the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Lewis also puts a personal spin on the project by relating it to his own family history.

“My mom was a science and math teacher when I was a kid, and she taught me a lot about Black history when I wasn't being taught it at school. So, I knew about George Washington Carver since I was a little kid,” he reflects. “I knew I was going to create a Mahalia Jackson album, I have always wanted to. And then I finally heard the synthesis of how I would like it to be and felt comfortable in my musical identity.” In his sleevenotes, which take the form of a letter to Jackson, Lewis tells the story of his grandmother hearing the great singer live in concert when she was six or seven years old. “I wondered what that felt like,” he writes. “Maybe it was the closest thing to hearing the voice of God.” His grandmother’s memories had a profound impact on him, “no different than hearing Kidd Jordan tell me about the first time he heard ‘Trane. I think that there's something to that idea of passing on these stories, and me having a relationship with my grandparents. The idea of celebrating powerful women was important to me for this album.”

A first-rate ensemble of creative musicians, Red Lily combines folk elements – blues, gospel – with sophisticated compositional strategies. They create music that is both emotionally resonant and crackling with invention. In his saxophone lines on For Mahalia, Lewis echoes Jackson’s interpretation of the songs, allowing for improvisation while honouring the original melody. Take his unaccompanied introduction to ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, where he punctuates each phrase with a bass note, before reeling through a series of rubato variations on the melody. The music opens up once the group falls in, but there’s always a melodic, harmonic or rhythmic element of the tune present, whether it’s the tambourine triplets drummer Chad Taylor shakes over his multi-directional drumming or the oblique arco motif that cellist Chris Hoffman and bassist William Parker carve out behind Lewis and cornetist Kirk Knuffke’s spiralling runs.

When many people hear gospel elements in a free jazz context they think of Albert Ayler. “I don't have a problem with that,” Lewis stresses, “But I think it's important to celebrate what's informing an artist like him. I'm pretty sure he knew about Thomas Dorsey. I'm probably sure he knew about Mahalia Jackson. So, I wanted to take it a step further and not celebrate Albert Ayler but celebrate Mahalia Jackson, because when I was growing up in the church, nobody talked about Albert Ayler. It’s important to understand the progression of things. Okay, Albert Ayler, he's cool. I dig him, but I like to dispel certain notions. If you look at some of my titles, they're pointing towards a certain frame of thought. I wanted to show a thread, a continuum. Have a foot in the past, a foot in the present, and your mind in the future.”

In developing his own interpretations, Lewis studied different versions of the songs. “‘Deep River’, I didn't just check out Mahalia's version. I checked out [opera singer] Jessye Norman’s version, Mary Anderson's version and Paul Robeson's.” Running with the idea of a continuum, Lewis points out his interest in revisiting certain songs in different formations. “I got that idea from Charlie Haden. There's a song that he wrote for his wife, ‘First Song’, you see it on multiple albums.” One such tune for Lewis is ‘Sparrow’, which he’s recorded several times, including in a duo with guitarist Bill Frisell, a trio with bassist Silvia Bolognesi and pianist Alexis Marcelo, and now with Red Lily. The sparrow has great personal resonance for Lewis. “It’s one of the species of birds talked about in the Bible. And my best friend's daughter's name is Sparrow, and [when] I worked at a summer camp, my name was Sparrow. It’s a bird that keeps coming back into my life, something that I reflect on. So, when I think about ‘His Eyes On the Sparrow’ and Mahalia performing, I used to perform that when I was a kid on sax, and that was one of my grandmother's favourite songs. So, to combine those two to show some progression with the classic version? There's a through line there.” James Brandon Lewis Quartet perform on November 19 as part of EFG London Jazz Festival. For tickets, click here.

The festival takes place from 10 to 19 November across multiple London venues. For the full lineup, click here. For tQ’s hand-selected highlights from this year’s bill, click here.