A Level Of Simplicity: James Brandon Lewis Interviewed

"There’s a lineage, a story, within this music..."

There’s a joyful breadth to the music of James Brandon Lewis. A stunning technician – his early records are rightly cited alongside the likes of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane – he’s grown with each project, expanding his approach in the process. A true student of freedom music, he’s equally adept at a freeform loft session and playing a standard, bringing equal insight and enthusiasm to both. New album ‘Eye Of I’ takes him to the next level – wonderfully crafted, there’s a commitment to melody amid the abstraction that makes James Brandon Lewis one of the finest musicians of the age.

Chatting to Clash over Zoom, he’s a figure of zest and boundless energy. Holding forth on everything from his childhood Downbeat subscription to his lingering fondness for the UK-centric acid jazz movement, he’s doggedly passionate about improvisatory arts, about the spaces between the lines. It’s a fastidiousness he applies to his own work, this perennial desire to evolve. “The way I look at my discography is that all my children are different!” he laughs. “But I definitely feel good about the energy and the compositions we brought into that room.”

A fantastic saxophonist, he’s capable of moving from sugar-sweet innocence to blasts of all-out paint-stripping noise. Curiously, that’s not the instrument he chooses to write on. “I primarily write on the piano. For me, it really forces a level of simplicity… because I’m not a pianist. And that means that my musical sensibilities are at their most melodic.” 

“It’s a process of stacking melodies – like, I’d record a melody with my right hand, then I’d loop it around, and add something else. I’m trying to draw out the lifeline.”

A whirlwind of influences, ‘Eye Of I’ also feels incredibly unified, driven by purpose and a familiar melodic voice. He adds: “You know, I was in a choir – my school choir. I developed my phrasing that way, before heading out to the fringes. And if you look at my influences more generally – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane for example – there is a noted vocal quality to their work. Growing up, I’d always listen to singers, people like Donny Hathaway, and that influences your playing.”

Indeed, there’s a poignant Donny Hathaway cover on his new record – a potent sojourn through ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’. If his saxophone takes on a vocal hue, then that’s entirely appropriate to his methodologies. “You channel the words, as well as the notes, to get to the meaning of the song,” he says. “It all plays a role. I’ve worked with poets and writers over the years, and that changes your relationship to language.”

Cracking open the preconceived notions that surround jazz, James Brandon Lewis is able to work from tangents and parallels, moving between traditions and hierarchies to establish his own framework. Closer ‘Fear Not’ for example features The Messthetics, boasting former members of seminal Dischord post-hardcore crew Fugazi. “It’s all up for grabs,” he says. “We’re pulling from soul music, from Donny Hathaway, from 80s songwriting, from rock. I’m drawing from all those influences. I like to dance, and I’m taking a lot of that on this journey. But we’re also chasing this other thing. There’s a lineage, a story, within this music. It can be about the fringes, about high-energy music – punk or free jazz – or it can be about church, about sitting in the pews listening to the choir.”

A recurring motif on the record is the undaunted humanity of James’ playing, the way that he seems intimately bonded to his instrument, almost on the molecular level. “I like the resistance the instrument provides me. The physical impact of playing. You mix the theoretical with the human side of things.”

Continuing, he points out: “This album’s range has been my process of maturation, and embracing everything that I can.”

Touching on his influences, James Brandon Lewis discusses the merging of art forms. Visual arts, he says, play a key role in his process – whether that’s poring over old Wayne Shorter scores or examining a Jackson Pollock painting. Of the latter, James beams: “he widened the length of the canvas!”

It all relates to his own pursuit of freedom. Abandoning chord changes, the pieces on ‘Eye Of I’ are led fundamentally by melody, merging beauty with dissonance in the process. “I used to write with a lot of chord changes,” he notes. “But then eventually I found I wasn’t speaking with my true voice. It was just more fun writing without these boundary lines. It’s just fun! I still study, and I’m constantly listening to the tradition, I’m not avoiding it – I just want to reach the truest, most authentic self. That’s my bread and butter – to say, this is me. And I work on that everyday.”

A continual advocate for the traditions and continuums he works inside, James Brandon Lewis often shies away from the word ‘jazz’. We close by touching on this, and the way his relationship with jazz has shifted over time.

“I still love the word,” he says. “Still. I have no issue with it, in the way some people do. My only thing is, as a saxophonist I am welded to this word. Even if the music I am presenting doesn’t fit that sound. At times, it doesn’t represent the full continuum of music I am drawing on. Music is always growing, it’s never stuck in time. I feel my only hesitancy, is that mine – and other – voices aren’t always heard.”

Ultimately, he can never envisage fully severing that link – indeed, it’s something that empowers him. “When I think about jazz, I think about being nine years old and reading Jazz Times, Downbeat. Those were my comic books! I have a beautiful relationship with the word jazz.”

‘Eye Of I’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray

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